Wednesday, July 31, 2013

James D. G. Dunn on the So-Called "New" and "Old" Perspectives on Paul


Over at Euangelion Michael Bird has drawn attention to a helpful article by venerable New Testament scholar Jimmy Dunn in the latest issue of Early Christianity (4:2 [2013] 157-82). Entitled "A New Perspective on the New Perspective on Paul," the article interacts largely with German scholarship which, by and large, has either ignored or rejected the so-called "New Perspective" (henceforth NPP) precipitated by Ed Sanders's ground-breaking 1977 tome, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. The German response to the NPP is hardly surprising, given that the foil for Sanders et al.'s rethinking of St. Paul's teaching on justification is Martin Luther's classic and influential articulation of the doctrine as a polemic against prideful works-righteousness. More recently, one thinks as well of the related debate half a century ago between Krister Stendahl, a forerunner of the NPP, and the august Lutheran scholar Ernst Kӓsemann on the related topic of the presence of salvation-history in Paul's thought. It is not surprising that the NPP has been no more congenial to the thought of German Lutherans than it has been to confessional Reformed types in the USA and UK.

Professor Dunn is uniquely qualified to write on this subject, having popularized the title "The New Perspective on Paul" in his famous 1982 Manson Memorial Lecture of that name at the John Rylands Library in Manchester. In the three decades since then he has continued to contribute to the discussion with major commentaries on Romans and Galatians, a magisterial Theology of Paul, and numerous smaller studies in journals and Festschriften. Most recently, he contributed to the very helpful 2011 book, Justification: Five Views, which all theology students not up to speed on the issue should read as soon as possible. Over the years, Dunn has almost imperceptively shifted his articulation of the issues to the point where, though he once may have drawn too sharp a distinction between the perspectives, he now writes with a balance that refuses to place a wedge where one is not necessary. Bird draws our attention to the following, entirely a propos comments from his most recent article:
[T]he ‘new perspective’ should not be defined or regarded as an alternative to the ‘old perspective’. The ‘new perspective’ does not pretend or think or want to replace all elements of the ‘old perspective’. It does not regard the ‘new perspective’ as hostile or antithetical to the ‘old perspective’. It asks simply whether the ways in which the doctrine of justification have traditionally been expounded have taken full enough account of Paul’s theology at this point. It is not necessary to call into question what have traditionally been taken to be the the central emphases of Paul’s doctrine.
The social dimension of the doctrine of justification was as integral to its initial formulation as any other. It was not a corollary which Paul drew from his primary emphasis at a later date; as an apostle he was never anything other than apostle to the Gentiles. This emphasis was at the heart of his gospel, why he felt so committed to it and why he defended it so resolutely. A doctrine of justification by faith which does not give prominence to Paul’s concern to bring Jew and Gentile together is not true to Paul’s doctrine.
To repeat, ‘works of the law’ is a more general phrase, which refers to the principle of keeping the law in all its requirements. But when the phrase comes in the context of Paul’s mission to Gentiles, and particularly of Jewish believers trying to compel Gentile believers to live like Jews, then its most obvious reference is particularly to the law in its role as a wall diving Jew from Gentile, the boundary markers which define who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’, that is, inside the law/covenant and outside the law/covenant people.
I would maintain that these statements are completely correct. Indeed, they are substantially the same points I had made back in 1995 in my Ph.D. dissertation dealing with Paul's teaching on justification in Galatians. Alas, however, such has been a hard sell in very conservative American Protestant Christianity, especially in so-called "confessional" circles beholden to 16th and 17th century doctrinal formulations reflecting the debates of that time with semi-Pelagian Roman Catholicism. Indeed, being "favorable" to the NPP in any of its various permutations—even when, like Dunn, one affirms the compatibility of the NPP with the main features of the "old" perspective—can be career suicide, as any number of scholars can attest, to the enduring shame of the institutions in question. In the long run, however, there is no going back. Dunn, in his most recent writings, demonstrates that the NPP has raised historical and theological issues in Paul's letters that cannot be avoided in favor of perpetuating anachronistic paradigms. Luther and Calvin may have been justified—I would argue they certainly were justified—in applying what Paul wrote to the Galatian and Roman churches to the important soteriological conflicts in which they were engaged. But to see the faces of medieval Roman Catholics in Paul's Jewish Christian opponents at Galatia, and even in first century Jews, is unjustified, and to do so causes the interpreter to privilege anachronism at the expense of the very historical exegesis which is his or her proper concern.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why I Am Still a Christian

A week ago I read one of the saddest stories to come to my attention in recent years. In his Weekly Meanderings post of 20 July, Scot McKnight provided a link to a post on the blog of Hemant Mehta ("The Friendly Atheist") written by Rachael Slick, the daughter of Christian apologist and Westminster Seminary Escondito graduate, Matt Slick. The post in question outlines Rachael's journey from dutiful, theologically-trained homeschooler to newly-converted atheist, the latter the consequence of her inability to answer—as she puts it, the "impossibility" of aligning a plausible answer with Christianity—the question as to why certain behaviors identified as "sinful" in the New Testament were not sinful in the Old Testament. Such an "inconsistency" was, for her, "proof" that the Bible is not, as she was taught (indoctrinated?), "infallible." Better, she reasoned, to "[educate herself] in science, a world far more uncertain than the one I left, but also far more honest."

Reading Slick's narrative caused an overwhelming melancholy to sweep over me. For all the arcane theological niceties in which she had been indoctrinated in her childhood—indeed, I always found it difficult to get the communicatio idiomatum across to my undergraduate students; for her, as a child, to articulate such a theologoumenon is certainly impressive, to say the least—had she never been taught a reading strategy for Scripture so as to answer intelligently the question, as N. T. Wright poses it, How Can the Bible Be Authoritative? I immediately recognized the tell-tale footprints of fundamentalism all over her story: extreme attention to sharply delineated patterns of authority and the concomitant demand for unquestioned obedience to one's superiors in the pecking order; patriarchal hierarchicalism; the prioritizing of so-called "truth" over love; and, more than anything else, the prioritizing of the quest for certainty over the quest for truth, usually born of a minimizing of the difficulties associated with the latter quest. And lying beneath all these is one major problem: the baleful influence of a foundationalist epistemology according to which any "proof" of the "fallibility" of any part of the Bible as one assumes it "must" be understood causes the entire structure of Christianity to be overturned. It appears she was raised in an environment in which there was little reflection, let alone acknowledgement, of the issue of what the Bible actually is and what questions it is and is not designed to answer. Such fundamentalism, unfortunately, is still common in American Christianity, and it bears its ugly fruit all too often in the lives of children raised in it who, in apparently growing numbers, are rejecting the faith en toto when they leave their protective cocoon to go to university.

Slick's story was poignant to me because, like everyone else in evangelical Christianity, I too have family members and friends, not to mention former students and classmates at Christian institutions, who have abandoned the faith I still hold dear. Her story likewise reinforces my belief that there are basically two reasons for the phenomenon of apostasy from the faith among people raised and, at times, trained, in conservative evangelical Christianity. The first reason is the apparent implausibility of Christianity in an increasingly secular and ever-diversifying western world. The Philadelphia of my youth was populated almost exclusively by Christians and Jews. Even those who did not actively practice their religion maintained a nominal adherence to it, identifying belief in God as one of the most salient differences between the capitalist West and the West's atheistic Soviet bloc enemies. Such ideas as heaven and hell, and indeed the sole existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were widely assumed to be true, and the cultural hegemony of America and Western Europe meant that non-Christian religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism were rarely, if ever, taken seriously.

Such cultural homogeneity, and the assumptions that went along with it, certainly do not characterize the America of today. Ethnic and religious diversity are now empirical facts, and the pluralism they entail has increasingly been seen as a positive contribution to the strength of our democracy. America's economic and military vicissitudes have contributed to an incontestable sense that the nation's former cultural assumptions rest on shakier foundations than previously had been imagined. Most significantly, the rising tide of secularism and a resurgent, evangelistic coterie of articulate "New Atheists" have made the case that theism, Christianity in particular, at best is both unprovable and unnecessary. At worst, so the argument goes, it is baseless and emotionally harmful superstition, especially where the fundamentalist instinct to distrust science rears its ugly head. In such an environment, it has become ever more difficult to assert the plausibility, let alone the absolute truth, of Christianity.

The second reason for the rise in youthful apostasy is what I like to describe as "Christians behaving badly." [Indeed, I can envisage a wicked situation comedy based on such a premise, starring none other than Martin Clunes.] Evangelicals may not like it but, as survey after survey indicates, and as anyone who works in the world can attest, they are not viewed positively by the population at large. "Judgmental," "anti-intellectual," "homophobic," and "self-righteous" are just a few of the perceptions commonly bandied about—and this with reference to people who are supposed to be marked by their love, not just for God and each other, but for their enemies as well. To put it simply, if Christians are unwilling or unable to live the way their religion says they ought, why should the religion itself be taken seriously?

I am well aware that such "reasons" can often simply be excuses used to justify an alienation precipitated by other factors, for instance, the "stumbling block" Christianity places in front of Americans for whom "freedom"—freedom to think and act as one pleases, the freedom to live without the looming specter of (objective) guilt and shame hanging over one's head—is the idol to which they give ultimate allegiance. So Slick:
Someone once asked me if I would trade in my childhood for another, if I had the chance, and my answer was no, not for anything.
 My reason is that, without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful ... Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.
Nevertheless, these reasons cannot simply be dismissed, and it is high time people like I who still believe explain, as a friend and former student asked me last year, "why [I] believe xrianity to be true." Indeed, I still count myself as a believer even as I acknowledge the counterintuitive nature of Christianity's basic claims. I have been a Christian as long as I can remember. I was raised in a Christian family by a father who was both a  preacher and a theology professor. Not only did I attend a Bible-believing church regularly, I attended a Lutheran elementary school for four years in which the religious education I received at home and in church was supplemented more than competently. After high school I attended a Christian college and ultimately was awarded a terminal degree in New Testament Studies by a famous evangelical seminary. Christianity, for people like me, came "naturally," as it were. [Note, for those wont to quibble, I am not writing theologically at this point.] Exercising faith in Christ cost people like me relatively little, or so it seemed at the time.

But it is precisely people like I who need to come to grips with, and always hold in our consciousness, the apparently outrageous nature of the claims we make. We, like our Jewish friends, claim that the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the god, that is, of a somewhat small group of Semitic people with a decidedly chequered history—is in reality the God of the whole world. Even more astoundingly, we Christians proclaim a "gospel" message that purports to be the climax of the biblical story of Israel, yet whose fundamental teaching could be summarized by St. Paul as "Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Such a message is, to be blunt, an oxymoron. The "Messiah," as every Jew "knew," was a winner who would vindicate Israel by defeating the people's pagan oppressors and establish the promised Kingdom in Jerusalem. But a person who was crucified was, by definition, a loser, brought low and made a spectacle by the victorious Romans, who scoffed at his claim by placarding "The King of the Jews" over his head on the gibbet. To claim, as Christians do, that this Jesus was God's Son, that in him and indeed as him the eternal God had become "enfleshed" and "tabernacled" in our midst (John 1:14) is indeed a wonderful and fantastic idea, but it is not one that can simply be assumed without argument or reasoned defense.

Likewise, I too have experienced the left foot of fellowship delivered by Christians who, despite easy smiles and well-rehearsed pieties, are as ruthless in the pursuit of power and control as the most stereotypical capitalist, and are unafraid of using traditionalist understandings of the Bible (at least within their circles) to consolidate and reinforce that power. The seeming disconnect between what the New Testament says should be the way Christians live and how they actually do live in America, more often allowing the present age to squeeze them into its mold than standing over against the world by virtue of a Spirit-transformed mind (cf. Rom 12:1-2), is—or at least should be—a scandal acknowledged within the evangelical world. But alas it too often is not.

Why, then, do I hold on to faith? At the outset one should make a distinction between the reasons why one believes and the (secondary) arguments used to justify or defend such belief. In the nature of the case, plausibility, even compelling probability, is necessary, but rarely if ever is, as Ed Sanders would say, the "real reason" for belief. Indeed, to this day I find the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the four Gospels, utterly compelling. Likewise, of all world religions it is Christianity alone that provides a coherent and realistic picture of the human predicament as well as the acknowledgement that humankind does not have the ability to rescue itself from that plight. It also, in my view, provides an elegant-yet-unexpected climax to the "story" which finds its introduction and conflict in the Jewish Scriptures of what Christians call the Old Testament. The "gospel" it proclaims of Jesus' messianic, sacrificial death and victorious resurrection is one that resonates within me, both demolishing innate human pride and glorifying the gracious God who did for humanity what it couldn't do for itself.  For me this message, as St. Paul says, encapsulates God's wisdom and his saving power (1 Cor 1:18, 24). But, if so, that is because I count myself among those whom the apostle says are "being saved" (1 Cor 1:18). He knew quite well, as modern Christians also do, that this same message is "folly" to the worldly wise and a stumbling block for all who pridefully choose to trust their own achievement or ethnic/religious heritage (1 Cor 1:23). It is a message he later says cannot be "received" by a psychikos ("natural") person without the Spirit to enable the proper discernment of its truth (1 Cor 2:14). What, then, is the real reason I believe? Paul would say that it is because I have been "called" (1 Cor 1:24), authoritatively summoned to faith by God's Spirit through the proclaimed word of the gospel. And it is this same Spirit whom the apostle elsewhere claims assures God's people that they truly are his people and warrants their calling him "Abba" ("Father"; Romans 8:16).

But this certainly doesn't settle things. Lots of good people sincerely feel confident about things when such confidence is misplaced. Every religion has its convinced and intelligent adherents. By definition, therefore, most, if not all, are wrong in their beliefs, no matter how sincerely held or existentially uplifting they are. What is needed, then, is what philosophers refer to as justification of religious belief. I am not a philosopher (I recommend reading such scholars as Basil Mitchell and Richard Swinburne if one is interested in such things), but Saint Peter nonetheless exhorts his readers "always [to be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15). This, of course, entails more than mere proclamation in the face of unbelief ("You ask me how I know he lives? The Bible tells me so." Yes, but why should I believe the Bible's testimony?). Begging the question, after all, is no argument. It entails more than simply exposing the bankruptcy of the presuppositional foundations of naturalism or any other anti-theistic system, profitable though such an expose may be. In the nature of the case, arguments for Christianity can never achieve the mathematical certainty of, say, the physical sciences. There is no one argument that "objectively" settles the matter. Christianity, after all, demands faith without sight; it will only be when we see our Lord "face to face" that we will "know fully even as we are known" (1 Cor 13:12). But that is no reason to avoid the task of reasoned defense. What matters, as Mitchell argued, is amassing a cumulative case so as to expose the baselessness of claims that Christian belief is based on "fairy tales" and wishful thinking.

Of the many arguments I could adduce, I will mention just two. The first admittedly has little probative value, but I mention it nonetheless in order to counteract the increasingly strident and, frankly, absurd assertions of Richard Dawkins and others that Christianity (and religion in general) is responsible for most of the ills that currently beset the world. The point is this: the lives of such men as my father John and uncle Bill McGahey, and my teacher Harold Hoehner, demonstrate tangibly the effect of the gospel on those who have been truly grasped by its message. In other words, I have seen firsthand the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to change people so that they become, in effect, living apologetics for the truth of Christianity and embodiments of the cruciformity that alone reflects how people should live with one another. As I have often said, in a very real sense I remain a Christian today because of my father, a man who always considered others before himself, who cared not one whit for the structures of the present evil age, and who perfectly combined the twin virtues of grace and truth in all his dealings with others.

The second, and most important, argument for Christianity's veracity is simply one constituent element of the gospel message itself. I am speaking, of course, about Jesus' resurrection from the dead. In my early years as a fledgling theological student, I came across a little book written in 1977 by University of Manchester New Testament Professor F. F. Bruce. In The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament Bruce briefly traced the sermons attributed to the apostles in the Book of Acts. What struck me then is how it is Christ's resurrection, not his atoning death that I had always assumed (and been taught) was the all-important matter, which in every case was the salient matter, not merely in Jewish contexts where it nicely provides the fitting climax to Israel's story (Acts 2, 7 [by implication, Stephen's testimony being cut off by lynching]), but in Greek settings as well, where talk of resurrection was a cause for dismissive ridicule (Acts 17). Indeed, the new apostolic message was described as a proclamation of "the resurrection from the dead" (Acts 4:2), and warrant for belief was provided by the apostles' "witness" to its historical veracity (Acts 3:15).

For St. Paul, Christ's resurrection on the third day was a nonnegotiable aspect of the traditional gospel message he had both "received" and "transmitted" to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:1-4). In the face of some Corinthian converts who, for one reason or another, "[said] there is no resurrection from the dead" (1 Cor 15:12), he makes it abundantly clear that the truth of Christianity stands or falls with the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ (15:12-19), which serves as the foretaste and first installment of the ultimate Messianic defeat of death and guarantee of the ultimate resurrection of his people (15:20-28). Note that, in this context, Paul defends the veracity of the apostolic tradition about Christ's resurrection, as Peter had earlier, via eyewitness testimony: Cephas and the Twelve, 500 brothers and sisters at one time, James the Just and "all" the apostles, and then, finally, himself (1 Cor 15:5-11).

"Christianity" was true, in other words, not because it provided the gateway to a heretofore unimaginable level of intense religious experience. It was true, according to the apostles, because God had shown it to be true in history ("on the third day") by raising Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, thereby vindicating one who had been executed by the Romans, with the consent of the Jewish leadership, as a supposedly-failed Messianic pretender. Once again it is essential to understand just what this belief entailed. When the apostles claimed Jesus had been raised from the dead, they emphatically did not mean, as Marcus Borg would have us believe, that the early Christians somehow experienced Jesus as "alive" in a non-bodily way. "Resurrection" simply didn't mean such claptrap. As N. T. Wright says, "'Resurrection' meant embodiment; that was equally so for the pagans, who denied it, as it was for the Jews, at least some of whom hoped for it" (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 694).

Why, though, should we believe this apostolic testimony? The reason, I propose, is that the Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection best explains both the rise of the Christian movement in general and the contours of the belief in particular (i.e., as Wright argues, the inference to the best explanation; Resurrection, 685-718). Despite some bold claims, there are no near parallels to Christian belief in the paganism of the ancient world. The late Old Testament Book of Daniel provides the category of individual bodily resurrection, but posits it for all people at the end of history in preparation for the final judgment (Dan 12:1-3). Christians asserted, on the contrary, that this resurrection had come in the midst of history with reference to a single individual, the crucified Jesus of Nazareth (while not denying the future general resurrection or the connection between them). And this resurrection was no mere resuscitation of a corpse. It was a transforming revivification into what Wright calls a "transphysical body," one that, according to the Gospel accounts, bore the scars from his execution and could eat fish, yet passed through the grave clothes in which it had been wrapped in the tomb, could walk through closed doors, and not be immediately recognizable.

I suggest that it is only if we take seriously the New Testament claims of Jesus' empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances to his followers that adequate sense can be made of these developments. We start, as in the Gospels themselves, with the empty tomb, perhaps the most assured fact that historical analysis can affirm. Without an empty tomb, there is simply no way that the later Christian belief in the resurrection could possibly have arisen, for the simple pointing to his grave would have nipped any movement built on a supposed resurrection in the bud. But an empty tomb is not sufficient, in and of itself, to have caused such developments to arise. That demanded yet another factor, namely, the appearances of Jesus to his followersand, in the case of his appearances to his brother James and the persecutor Saul of Tarsus, those who heretofore had not been followersnarrated in the Gospel accounts and enumerated by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Of course, naturalistic explanations of these appearances have been suggested ad nauseum by those hesitant to affirm Jesus' resurrection: mass hallucinations (really?), visions understood as projections of guilt and/or grief, fantasies caused by cognitive dissonance, wishful thinking proposed by those unwilling to accept failure and/or mistaken beliefs. By themselves, such appearances would be insufficient to produce belief in resurrection. But the conjunction of these appearances with the empty tomb explains both the belief in the resurrection and the surprising, indeed novel, ways that belief was articulated by the early Christians.

To be sure, such an argument cannot prove the resurrection, let alone the Christianity which depends on it. People are free to come up with alternate explanations, and no doubt more will be forthcoming. After all, confessing to belief in Jesus' resurrection is no mere disinterested truth claim (though, of course, there have been some, like Pinchas Lapide, who can affirm Jesus' resurrection while denying his status as Israel's Messiah). Belief in Jesus' resurrection entails belief that Jesus is the risen Lord, to confess which is to make what Tony Thiselton has called a "self-involving truth-claim," one in which the confessor nails his or her colors to the mast as an act of commitment (see A. C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007] 12-13). This is a confession that, as Paul says, can only be uttered through the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). Yet, it seems to me, naturalistic rationalizations of the biblical data all fail to provide the explanatory power that the Christian explanation does to deal with the data on the ground.

In the nature of the case, this post, while long, only scratches the surface and is intended as a springboard for further study. If one is interested in more detailed argumentation, I recommend the following: Gary Habermas, "The Late Twentieth-Century Resurgence of Naturalistic Responses to Jesus' Resurrection," Trinity Journal n.s. 22 (2001) 179-96; Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2010); and especially N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis: Fortress/ London: SCM, 2003).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Revenge of the Bourgeois Paul? A Response to Anthony Bradley

Back in May, Anthony Bradley wrote a post in the Action Institute PowerBlog entitled "The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed." In Protestant circles, perhaps no more damning epithet can be proposed for an idea or a movement that that it is "legalistic." Calling someone a "legalist" lumps him together with the Galatian agitators of old, who demanded circumcision and Torah observance of Gentile converts to Christ. Other presumed bedfellows include, inter alia, Roman Catholics, who view human effort as a genuine instrumental contribution to final justification, as well as old school fundamentalists who, as I know from personal experience, had a penchant for assigning divine warrant for their extra-biblical "standards" of personal holiness.

As the title of his post indicates, Bradley has his sight set on Christian groups that promote "radical" and/or "missional" Christianity and thereby marginalize "ordinary God and people lovers," to quote his tweet that generated the subsequent discussion. Such an emphasis on mission as the overarching business of the church both corporately and individually is, in Bradley's view, detrimental because it shames those who "'settle' into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, 'aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.'" Moreover, such a missional emphasis, according to Bradley, feeds the narcissism epidemic rampant in the current Zeitgeist, in that it shames people into thinking that being an "ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about" is being unfaithful to our calling as Christians. "Missional" Christianity thus, in Bradley's view, compromises the classic Protestant theology of vocation, according to which Christians can make a positive contribution to human flourishing "in any sphere of life." "Why," Bradley asks, "is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders?"

Before I go any further, let me make it perfectly clear that I understand his native hesitation to follow ideas and movements that are "trendy." At the same time, however, Bradley does himself no favors by painting with too broad a brush. There is "missional," and then there is "missional." Yes, some adherents shallowly ride the crest of the ascendant wave. Others, while having good intentions, write and think merely at the popular level. Then there are scholars such as the Langham Partnership International's Chris Wright, whose massive The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2006) really should be required reading for all thinking Christians today. When I describe myself as advocating a "missional" Christianity, it is Wright's vision to which I adhere. And that means that the church, both as a corporate body and individual members, actively participate in the mission of God to redeem his creation as such has been revealed on the pages of the New Testament (see pages 22-23). Such is clearly not a narcissistic pursuit, and if such an emphasis "shames" Christians who prefer to live according to the schēma of the world which, as Paul says, is "passing away" (1 Cor 7:31), so be it.

Likewise, I too affirm a robust view of vocation in which Christians can work for the Kingdom of God in any sphere of life to which God has called them. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that Bradley and I operate with divergent theologies of work. In particular, if the venue of his post was not clear enough, what he says makes it evident that Bradley assumes the goodness of an unfettered free market in which participation in and of itself is sufficient to validate its worth (so long as the worker loves God and neighbor). I, on the other hand, am not so sanguine in this regard. Human beings were created to be God's image, and the Christ event has ushered in the initial phase of the eschatological kingdom by virtue of which Christ's followers can truly image God and reflect the realities of the new creation. The point of work is not just to "work hard" (such can be just as narcissistic as the "radical" and "missional" emphases Bradley abominates) but to work so as to reflect God in the world Christ came to redeem. Some vocations, to be blunt, are more amenable to such reflection than others ... and they are usually the ones at the lower end of the pay scale.

One particular passage in Bradley's post opens a window into his soul, and thus into what really ticks him off about the recent "missional" emphasis:
As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching. I actually know of a couple who were being so “missional” that they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.
In response, I hardly know where to begin. Nonetheless, this snarky passage, and Bradley's repeated complaints against "anti-suburban Christianity," demonstrate that his post is, if anything, little more than an apologia for suburban Christianity and, even more basic, suburbanism as a post-World War II American societal phenomenon. Today's Millennial "missional" Christians supposedly have taken their cue from their ungrateful Baby Boomer parents who, despite their Builder generation parents who virtuously moved to the suburbs "to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease," "despise[d] the contexts that provided them advantages." Thus the current "disdain" of the suburbs and emphasis on mission to America's (I would argue neglected) cities is not merely induced by shame and predicated on narcissism, it is also a retrograde step in the grand sweep of the American experience.

Now I am a Boomer, born in 1957. I, too, was raised in suburbia, my parents moving out of West Philadelphia to settle in Havertown when I was a wee lad of 7. I gratefully acknowledge the advantages such a move gave me in the educational arena, my alma mater Haverford High being consistently rated among the elite public schools in the nation. But is suburbia the Elysium Bradley so obviously believes it is? Surely he, as an African-American, is aware of the racism that was often involved in the mass exodus of middle class whites from America's great cities to the suburbs in the post WWII era, of which such concerns for "safety" and "schools" were often transparent, coded euphemisms for the desire to isolate themselves from the growing numbers of blacks who had migrated to the industrial cities for work earlier in the century. Many of us suburban-reared Boomers who prefer cities do so because of the aesthetic sterility, poor land management, and environmental consequences of the auto-centric culture spawned by suburbia. Moreover, does Bradley imagine that the quest for "material ease" and affluence ("saving and investing"), i.e., materialism, that undergirds the "American Dream" and its culturally dominant suburban paradigm is consistent with the New Testament ethic for material possessions? (well, he is a research fellow at the conservative Acton Institute, so I guess the answer is "yes"). Are "arts and social justice activities" deserving of being snarkily dismissed in comparison with those occupations whose sole purpose is to contribute to the mindless global economy? In my view, it is precisely such poorly compensated activities that better image God and promote God's kingdom than those that more stereotypically support the "American way of life" (Likewise, I take his comment about "sound economics" with a pinch of salt, realizing that he, as a laissez-faire capitalist, is simply referring to conservative economic theory, not the dominant economic views of the academy). Finally, his "shock" that a couple might actually consider forgoing having children of their own so as to take care of orphans is surely rhetorical (Claude Rains's Louis Renault comes to mind) ... or at least I hope it is. Is such an entirely admirable decision really a bad thing? Such feigned shock boggles the mind.

What Bradley in effect advocates is a Christianized bourgeois lifestyle in which people get married at a young age, have kids early, work hard, save, invest, and love God and neighbor. Now, the Jesus Creed is indeed central to what it means to live as a Christian. I couldn't agree more. Likewise, there is nothing intrinsically or necessarily wrong with living a classic middle class life, as long as affluence is not one's goal and one is generous with one's possessions to a fault. Most importantly, however, such a life is not antithetical to the "missional" focus Bradley abominates. Indeed, I would argue that the greater problem in the American Christianity I have been a part of for half a century is an affluent church that is too caught up in the American Dream to get its hands dirty for the sake of its poorer brothers and sisters, let alone the hurting world among whom they live and breathe.

Interestingly, the text Bradley uses to support his advocacy of living a "normal" life is one that, properly understood, doesn't support his position at all. 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-11 reads as follows: "But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you." Read with uncritical American eyes, it would appear that St. Paul here is commending the bourgeois life: work hard and live a quiet, "respectable" life so as not to depend on others' generosity or insert themselves unnecessarily in their lives. Such eisegesis, however, while a "natural" reading to many Americans, certainly cannot claim to be the apostle's historical intent in the Greek culture to which he was writing. 

As Bruce Winter has persuasively argued, the context in which this exhortation must be read is that of the day's dominant social structure of private patronage (see especially his Seek the Welfare of the City [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994] chapter 3, "From Secular Client to Christian Benefactor"). Those in Thessalonica and elsewhere who didn't "want to work" (thelei ergazesthai, 2 Thess 3:10) were not, in the parlance of today's self-righteous right, simply "lazy moochers," whether motivated by eschatological enthusiasm or otherwise. They were free-born members of a strata of society that, as clients, received support from wealthy patrons to whom they reciprocated by giving honor (dignitas) and advancing their interests. Likewise, "working with one's hands" is not simply a synecdoche referring to "honest work" of any kind, but specifically a reference to the artisan life lived by persons who were of sufficiently low social status as to wield no political influence whatsoever, and whose manual labor was generally despised by the Greek aristocracy as well as others who aspired to higher social status. Likewise, to be "ambitious to be quiet" (philotimeisthai hēsychazein) and "to mind one's own business" (prassein ta idia) reflects language used at the time to refer to to engaging in public, even political, affairs. For Paul, Christians were to refrain from living or desiring to live the client lifestyle, no matter how socially desirous, in which one receives financial support in exchange for publicly advancing the interests of one's benefactor in public and/or political affairs (see also Gene Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians [PNTC; Grand Rapids and cambridge: Eerdmans; Leicester: Apollos, 2002] 208-12). By contrast, if one "work[ed] with one's own hands," he or she would "have need of nobody" (1 Thess 4:12).

The upshot is that Paul was working, not simply to put a Christian spin on the client-patron relationship but, as Winter argues in reference to a similar passage in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, to hasten its demise (After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001] chapter 9, "Secular Patronage and Christian Dominance"):
For Christians it was not the transformation of the role of clients but its demise. In its place Paul enjoined all Christians, including former clients, to work and thereby have the wherewithal to undertake 'good works', i.e., benefactions, for those in need—a role that was the traditional domain of the elite. All able-bodied Christians were to be benefactors to others rather than clients.
This is truly a word that has counter-cultural relevance to an American church steeped in affluence, which too easily can justify its pursuit of wealth, power, and influence with the pieties of "hard work" and "respectability" drawn illegitimately from Paul's instructions to his fledgling churches. Yes, hard work is good. Living a "respectable" life, defined circumspectly, is also fine. But Paul would have had no sympathy for the life of "saving and investing" Bradley and others believe is the essence of living respectably in today's world. Indeed, to cite a text I mentioned earlier, the apostle truly believed that the schēma of this world, its "external structures," if you will, was in the process of its demise, and that one should consequently live in the light of what he believed was the imminence of the eschaton. Yes, as Bradley suggests, what we need are "ordinary God and people lovers." But one truly wonders whether he has reflected deeply enough on what such love of neighbor really entails, let alone the utter self-abnegation our Lord demanded from all who would be his disciples.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Some Reflections on the Zimmerman Verdict

By now everyone in America knows that the gun-wielding neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has been acquitted of all charges in the February 2012 fatal shooting of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Indeed, the hold this case had on the American public surpassed its objective stature in the grand scheme of national and international events. But, of course, this trial had prominent elements that made it more than ordinary. In particular, the shooting of a young, unarmed black teenager by a mixed-race (white, Hispanic) perpetrator served to bring into the nation's consciousness, once again, the spectre of our country's original sin, the enslavement of and, later, discrimination against, people of sub-Saharan African ancestry.

The reactions that poured forth almost immediately after the verdict was announced were in equal measures unsurprising and disappointing. Opinionators on the left, not surprisingly, saw the verdict as a miscarriage of justice. Indeed, it was hailed as evidence that New South "justice" differed no one whit from that dispensed in the Old South, that killings of African Americans are tolerated the way lawmen used to avert their gazes from lynchings and the like. On the right, an ugly smugness set in, at least as I could discern from the opinions expressed on my Facebook feed. Even the fact that the case went to a jury trial was blamed on the supposedly "liberal media," who "sensationalized" a clear-cut case of "self-defense" with their "typical" race-baiting tactics. In a particularly execrable article, Roger L. Simon blames President Obama for inserting himself into the proceedings and forcing prosecution in a case that "should never have gone to trial" because "there was, virtually, no evidence to convict George Zimmerman."

I am sympathetic to the verdict's left-leaning critics, particularly to those who, like the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, understand its potential social ramifications for young black American men in the Land of the Free. As Capehart says, "One of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions." The truth of that statement, and its relevance to the matter at hand, is obvious even to the present writer who never has had to experience such suspicions. Nevertheless, one could certainly argue in this case that the blame for the verdict, if fault is to be assessed, should be laid at the feet of an overly-zealous and inept prosecution. Second degree murder? Even to this writer, who believes Zimmerman should be incarcerated for his actions, considers such a charge to be a stretch. Manslaughter would have been an easier sell, but even then they would have had to do a better job (and it really shouldn't have been that hard) debunking the defendant's claim of acting in self-defense.

Even so, however, convictions are hard to get by design. In the best column I have read on the verdict, the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus trots out the famous quotation of Sir William Blackstone (d. 1780) from his Commentaries of the Laws of England to the effect that "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer." And that is how it should be to anyone who values human life, prefers justice to revenge, and, if Christian, believe that a day of final and perfect justice is coming from the outside in the future. Objectively guilty people may escape justice in this world, but the day is coming, as I confess daily in the words of the Apostles' Creed, that Jesus Christ will return in glory at the last day from God's right hand in heaven "to judge the quick and the dead." If indeed the law is designed to make it difficult to convict people of crimes—after all, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is a pretty stringent threshold—then, as Marcus rightly states, "In the end, society must accept that there is not always a perfect fit between a criminal justice system and justice." And so it appears likely to have been the case in this trial.

On the other hand, I have no sympathy whatsoever for the viewpoint of Zimmerman's champions on the right. While it may be true that race simpliciter wasn't the most pressing consideration in the Martin case, it doesn't take a Ph.D. in theoretical physics to discern that it was, at the least, a contributing factor both in the act itself and in the verdict reached by the jury. Would George Zimmerman have acted as he did had young Martin been an unknown white kid strolling through the neighborhood? Please. As Zimmerman himself said to the 911 dispatcher whose sound advice he ultimately failed to heed, "He has his hand in his waistband . . . He has something in his hand . . . These ***holes always get away with it." To pretend, as the Roberts Court did last month in its unconscionable evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, that racism has been largely eradicated in the South, is ideologically-based lunacy. Just read the comments to any article or column on a controversial issue in to see that "Archie Bunker conservatives" (yes, Carroll O'Connor's Bunker was a caricature, but just barely one) run rampant even in today's supposedly tolerant Northeast, which doesn't have the legacy of Jim Crow to deal with. With regard to the jury, ask yourself one further question: Would Zimmerman have been acquitted had he been black and shot to death an unarmed white kid walking through a black neighborhood? It's unlikely. At the very least he would have had a hard time gathering such a large army of supporters among conservative white people. There may be indeed be a legitimate phenomenon of white liberal guilt, of which I can be guilty at times, moderate though I may be. White conservative guilt, not so much—white conservatives aren't disposed to feel guilty (or apologize) for much, if anything, at all.

This morning I saw a meme from a group that calls itself "Young Americans for Liberty," in which President Obama was (rightly) criticized for the deaths caused by his drone program, but which decried the "hatred" shown by Facebook posters toward Zimmerman, who was "accused and acquitted in a fair trial examining all the evidence available." That settles it then, does it? I wonder how many of that group's members reacted the same way after the infamous O. J. Simpson verdict, likewise the result of the toxic brew of race-based politics and inept prosecution. Let's examine the well-known, relevant facts of the case: (1) Zimmerman had a history of making 911 calls to voice concerns about "suspicious-looking" black people in his gated community; (2) Zimmerman was clearly instructed by the 911 dispatcher to stay in his truck and wait for law enforcement; (3) Zimmerman got out of his truck anyway and followed Martin with a gun; (4) Martin was unarmed, unless one wants to describe skittles and an iced tea as weaponry; (5) the shooting resulted after Martin, annoyed by being followed, got into a fight with Zimmerman—a fight he was clearly winning, because of which he found himself dead.

Martin was certainly no role model for teen behavior. He had had his run-ins with the law and, if the testimony of the young woman who was Martin's last conversation partner is to be believed, was deeply infected by racism himself (he allegedly referred to Zimmerman, whom he had noticed following him, as a "creepy ***-cracka"). But the point is that such character issues are irrelevant to the issue at hand. The issue is simply this: was Zimmerman justified in using lethal force in subduing the unarmed Martin in a confrontation he himself had precipitated by his foolish attempt to secure vigilante justice? Let's be entirely clear here. It is Zimmerman, not Martin, who is responsible for the latter's death. He started it and, despite Martin's fateful, macho retaliatory response, he ended it with a simple pull of the trigger. The Philadelphia Daily News' retired columnist Elmer Smith, who as a black man feels the existential impact of this verdict in a way I, as a white man, cannot, expressed the matter elegantly: "Does the law allow you to kill someone because you are losing a fight that you started?" Well, in Florida, I guess the answer is "yes."

The simple fact of the matter is that the Martin killing was entirely due to the "liberal" (not in a political sense, of course) gun laws on the books in Florida. Without "conceal carry" laws, Zimmerman would not have had the means to use lethal force against Martin. Even more importantly, Zimmerman would not have been emboldened to play the hero and enact "community justice" against the "other" with whom he felt uncomfortable walking in his neighborhood. This, at its basis, is the main reason for my opposition to such laws, as well as to such others as the "Castle Doctrine" and "Stand Your Ground" laws. Allowing people to carry and use lethal weapons emboldens them to use them even if not absolutely necessary, if only they "feel" threatened ("Shoot first and ask questions later. You can always claim self-defense.") Simply put, putting such weapons in the hands of the George Zimmermans of the world is like throwing a lit match into a parched, drought-stricken pine forest.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Philadelphia's Endangered Church Buildings: The Sad Case of Christ Memorial Church

Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church, 4233 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia

Philadelphia has an unsurpassed inventory of historic church architecture. From well-preserved relics of America's colonial era in Old City, Queen Village, and Society Hill (Gloria Dei [Old Swedes'] Church, Christ Church, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, "Old Pine" Presbyterian), to John Notman's monumental Roman Catholic Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul on Logan Square, to well-preserved and active 19th century churches in Center City (St. Mark's, Holy Trinity, and St. Clement's Episcopal; First, Tenth, and Arch Street Presbyterian; Arch Street Methodist; Holy Communion Lutheran; First Baptist [I'm cheating on this last one, built as it was in 1900!]), residents and visitors alike can marvel at the beauty and sheer number of ecclesiastical edifices adorning the city's streetscape. Indeed, it was not until I moved to Dallas, Texas in 1979 for graduate study that I came to the realization of Philadelphia's uniqueness in this regard and that I, as I'm sure most other denizens of the city, was foolish for having taken this treasure trove for granted. [For those interested in delving more deeply into Philadelphia's churches, see the splendid Philadelphia Church Project.]

The reason for the city's wealth of historic churches is not hard to discern. It is old and it is large. But America's transition from an industrial to a post-industrial, service- and technology-based economy has had catastrophic effects on all the old industrial powerhouses, including the venerable City of Brotherly Love. Scores of the old working class neighborhoods retained (many of) their residents even as all the mills and factories that sustained them were shuttered in the post-war era. The effect this had on the grand neo-Gothic churches that dotted these neighborhoods has been devastating. The "flight" of many to the suburbs and migration of others out of the area entirely, when combined with the general societal shift to a post-Christian culture, have left dozens of these fine old structures without congregations to tend after them. Many more are home to diminishing numbers of congregants without the means to keep up their properties. As a result, many have met the wrecking ball. One thinks here of the loss of such monumental Roman Catholic churches as The Church of the Transfiguration in Cobbs Creek (demolished 2009) and St. Boniface on Norris Square in Kensington (d. 2012), as well as such Protestant churches as Mt. Olive AME in Graduate Hospital (d. 2012) and St. John the Evangelist Episcopal in Pennsport (d. 2013). The fates of others, vacant and deteriorating, such as the remarkable Church of the Assumption (built 1849) in Callowhill (for my thoughts on this church, see here), hang in the balance.

Back in April, Hidden City Philadelphia published a list of the city's Top Ten Significant, Vulnerable Churches. One church on the list has long been a particular favorite of mine. I am speaking of Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia, built in 1887 and designed by Isaac Pursell along with the adjacent seminary for the fledgling denomination, which had only broken with the larger Episcopal Church in 1873 in reaction to the burgeoning influence of the Oxford Movement. While living in suburban Havertown in my youth, our family's preferred route into Center City was the direct one via Chestnut Street. As one approached University City the formidable Victorian Gothic cragginess of the structure came into view on the left, with its perfectly proportioned tower and 171-foot steeple never failing to impress. Likewise famous are its numerous stained-glass windows (see here).

Christ Memorial Church, July 1986. By that time the cross atop the
steeple had already been removed (photo by author)
On the night of August 3, 2004, however, disaster struck in the form of a severe thunderstorm in which no less than 35 lightning strikes were recorded in the church's West Philly neighborhood. One of them struck the steeple, and at 10:32 P.M. the steeple collapsed into a heap of rubble, taking the tower with it, leaving a gaping hole in the roof of the ornate sanctuary. The small congregation immediately filed a claim with GuideOne Insurance, who refused to pay the full amount necessary to repair the structure. After a two year legal battle the church, unable to foot the bill for restoration, sold the edifice to a local developer and united, at least for the time being, with Grace Church in Collingdale, Delaware County. In the meantime, a homeless shelter has operated out of a part of the campus, but the sanctuary remains derelict, with no prospects in sight.

Despite its derelict present state and uncertain future, Christ Memorial Church retains a certain visual power due to the quality of its Gothic design and stone walls. I leave you with a few photos I took of the church back in May, in the hope that someone will eventually step to the plate to save this most magnificent of buildings. After all, it is buildings like these that redeem the urban fabric from the relentless banality that has afflicted all American cities for decades.

Christ Memorial Church, 5 May 2013, as seen from the SW corner of 43rd and Chestnut (photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

The promise of the Kingdom of God in Isaiah 60:18 inscribed on the gate (photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

Former main entrance (photo by author, 5 May 2013)

Main entrance under former tower (photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

Great door of main entrance (photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

Looking up at where tower and steeple used to be (photo by author, 5 May 2013)

Looking up through main entrance to the empty sky (photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

(photo by author, 5 May 2013)

View south along 43rd Street (photo by author, 5 May 2013)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Doug Wilson, N. T. Wright, and Riders of "Pale" Horses

Pastor Doug Wilson

Last month Doug Wilson made a characteristically outrageous claim: N. T. Wright rides a pale horse. For those unfamiliar with the imagery, Wilson is alluding to the fourth "seal" of the Book of Revelation: "When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "come!" And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth" (Revelation 6:7-8, ESV).

Professor N. T. Wright
On the face of it, Wilson's accusation would appear to be somewhat over the top. The "pale" horse—actually, the hue conveyed by the term chlōros is a "pale, greenish gray," the distinctive pallor of a newly minted corpse—was, after all, ridden by one of the famous "four horsemen of the Apocalypse" revealed with the slain Lamb's opening of the first four seals of the scroll (Rev 5:1) that, as Richard Bauckham argues cogently, "reveal[s] the way in which, according to the hitherto secret purpose of God, the Lamb's victory is to become effective in establishing God's rule over the world" (The Theology of the Book of Revelation [Cambridge: CUP, 1993] 80). No matter what interpretive strategy one follows for the Book of Revelation, this horseman is a sinister, malevolent figure representing death, whose associate, Hades (i.e., the grave), follows in tow to gather up the strewn corpses left in its wake. In John's theological vision death and Hades, despite their present hegemony, are doomed figures. Indeed, by virtue of his death and resurrection, Christ already has gained power over them (Rev 1:18), and their ultimate destiny of being consigned to the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:14) has been rendered certain. In the meantime, however, the slain and victorious Lamb can and does utilize death and Hades as judgmental agents in the service of the ultimate consummation of the redemptive reign into which he entered by virtue of his death and resurrection.

To what does Professor Wright owe the honor of being dubbed a rider of such a horse? Well, in answer to a question posed by Pete Enns, Wright had the temerity to suggest that the peculiarly American connection between theological and political/economic conservatism was not a necessary connection. His exact words were as follows:
That is very interesting because, of course, in America, the spectrum of liberal conservative theology tends often to sit rather closely with the spectrum of left and right in politics. In England and in many other parts of the world, that simply isn't the case.
In England, you will find that people who are very conservative theologically by what we normally mean conservative in other words, believing in Jesus, believing in his death and resurrection, believing in the trinity are often the ones who are in the forefront of passionate and compassionate social concern of a sort which if were you to transport it to America would say, oh, that's a bit left wing.
I think what I want to do is to uncouple some of the connections which people have routinely made, particularly in America, and to say actually the whole idea of a spectrum, whether it's theological or political, is probably very misleading because there are all sorts of insights that we need. We need to get them from bits of the Bible we don't normally expect and perhaps from people in bits of the church we don't normally expect.
That is something that a robust faith that is firmly rooted in God, in the trinity, in Jesus, in the holy spirit ought to be able to take on board. Otherwise, what we are doing is substituting our framework and then judging people, according to where they are in our framework, rather than something which is actually the given at the heart of our faith.
Well, as I would likewise respond if asked whether or not I liked cheesesteaks, "Of course." This assumed-yet-unnecessary coupling of conservative theology and conservative politics has been the bane of my existence for decades as I have lived in the conservative hotbeds of Dallas, Texas and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I, too, was raised to make that very assumption, but years of graduate biblical study and working stiff jobs eventually conspired to convince me otherwise. Nevertheless, what Wright said was too much for the extremely conservative, "paleo-Confederate" (his term, not mine—don't get me going on that score, America having just marked the 150th anniversary of the carnage of Battle of Gettysburg, ultimately caused by his beloved, slavery-perpetuating Confederates) Wilson. 

The Cambridge economist, John Maynard Keynes
To Wilson, Wright implicitly is an exponent of "leftism" in his economic politics. By such a smear—make no mistake about it, to a conservative no greater insult can be hurled than accusing somebody as being a "leftist"—Wilson means that Wright is a naive, confused advocate of Keynesian economic policies, of which he has quite definite, if in my view muddled, opinions. Keynesianism, in Wilson's confident rhetoric, is simply a manifestation of "leftist ignorance of economics." Moreover, he throws down the gauntlet to the "hipster left" (which, I guess, would have to include me, a rather odd description of a 56-year old Luddite from Philadelphia) by claiming that concern for the poor "necessarily excludes every form of Keynesianism." Why? Because, so he asserts, 
Keynesianism destroys jobs, wages, families, neighborhoods, education, opportunity, and more. How is it seeking the good of the city to saddle them with sub-standard schools? How is it seeking the good of the city to start subsidizing waste, fraud and abuse? All such meddling is economic stupidity, and God did not tell His people to fan out over the globe, doing stupid things to people.
Now, I know where Wilson is coming from. He is an avid defender of "robust, free markets," like almost all Christians with postmillennial and/or Reconstructionist beliefs. He even acknowledges that "only the Spirit of God can bring [such markets] about through the gospel by setting men free from their envy and their covetousness gimmes." (Here, by the way, the delusion of postmillennialist eschatology appears to cloud his judgment almost entirely; such a scenario will never exist prior to our Lord's return to consummate the kingdom that was inaugurated through his death and resurrection; is it not a conceivably legitimate government function to act for the common good and curb the sinful excesses of the powerful and rapacious among us?) Elsewhere he provides a primer on his economic beliefs in a screed against the Wall Street Occupiers entitled "Horse Leech Economics." There we "learn" that the poor and working class don't pay their fair share because 50% don't pay any income taxes and that the beleaguered rich have every right to hide their assets off shore so as to avoid paying taxes, and that they are only to be faulted for "not defending themselves" against "economic insanity" of the type promoted by the Occupy movement. The overly simplistic nature of his argument that the rich are paying their fair share should be evident on only a moment's reflection. More importantly, however, if one thinks his defense of the rich sits uneasily next to the Prophetic and Jesuanic traditions found in the Bible, one would be correct. In particular, Wilson's entire polemic against Wright, and Keynesians in general, has, it seems to me, three basic problems.

First, Wilson operates with a flawed, simplistic definition of what "Keynesianism" entails. Wilson, of course, is not alone, a fact which led Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of Princeton University, perhaps the world's foremost Keynesian, to write a post on his blog last month entitled "Karicature Keynesianism." What Krugman means is as follows:

Anyone who’s followed the various attacks on yours truly knows what I mean: Keynesians believe that budget deficits never matter, that increasing demand can solve all economic problems, that there’s no such thing as a supply side to the economy, that more spending is always good.
This is clearly the working assumption of the "Austerians" of present day Europe and America who promote governmental inactivity-induced economic pain to be the "cure" for the supposedly Keynesian-induced recession that has roiled the developed world for going on six years. But it bears little resemblance to what Keynes and his latter-day acolytes propose. Indeed, what Keynes in fact argued for for increased public sector spending when the private sector was unable to sustain the economy sufficiently. Failure to do so  could have catastrophic consequences, as Krugman earlier wrote when summing up Keynes's major point: "slashing spending in a depressed economy depresses that economy further." What about when times are good? That, argued Keynes in 1937, was "the time for austerity at the Treasury."

Of course, Wilson has his sights set on more than simply governmental stimulus to ailing economies. He is an advocate of bare-bones government, and wishes it would stop "meddling" in places where it has no business, such as education as well as commerce (let alone healthcare). It will surprise no one that I am not in sympathy with Wilson at this point, despite my own concerns for governmental overreach. But, as the saying goes, the cure for a headache, no matter how severe, is not decapitation.

Second, Wilson's black-and-white descriptions of the effects of Keynesian policies is empirically unjustified. Indeed, what he says lines up perfectly with the blunt assertions of Ron Ross two years ago at The American Spectator in the wake of Obama's half-hearted stimulus package: "Keynesianism doesn’t work, never has worked, and never will work." Such is presumption, pure and simple. Ideology, it seems, almost always trumps evidence. At best, it succeeds in screening out or transmuting nasty evidence to the contrary. For, as Stanford Professor and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich has argued, it was Keynes, and the economic policies he promoted, that likely saved capitalism from itself in Western Europe and America in the wake of the Great Depression (he was hardly the "leftist" his modern conservative detractors suppose, an index, it seems, of the shifting rightward of the ideological center during the past 30 or so years). Keynesianism destroys jobs? Tell that to the millions helped by FDR's WPA (Indeed, it was FDR's precipitant return to austerity in 1937 that led to the recession of 1937-38, which would only really end with the Keynesian defining moment: Word War II). Keynesianism destroys opportunity? Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of GIs, including my late father, who were able to attend college only because of the federal government-provided GI Bill. Keynesianism destroys wages? Tell that to the vast American middle class of the 1950s and 60s, the enormity of which was created in large measure by FDR's New Deal, and whose seemingly inexorable decline today coincided with the "rebirth" of so-called "Supply Side Economics" under Ronald Reagan in 1980. Keynesianism destroys economies? Tell that to tens of million Europeans in countries like Spain and the Republic of Ireland whose economies have sunk ever deeper into entrenched stagnation due to the fashionable, anti-Keynesian austerity politics of the EU, just like Keynesians such as Krugman said they would (ditto Krugman's predictions about Obama's stimulus package). Presumption is a powerful intellectual force, but in the real world an ounce of evidence is worth a pound of presumption. And, as Krugman has often said over the years, "reality has a well-known Keynesian bias."

Third, Wilson's economic positions are, at best, theologically unjustified. I write this with some hesitation, knowing as I do Wilson's commitment to living all of life under the gospel and his desire to help the poor as part of that. Moreover, I understand the concern of writers such as Joseph Sunde that people in western democracies recognize the importance of earned success in life. (This, I suppose, is at the bottom of most middle class Christians' distaste for policies of preference and string-free assistance.) 

Nevertheless, when I read writers like Wilson and R. J. Moeller claim that the Bible espouses "principles of economics" that broadly conform to right-wing American political ideology, the New Testament scholar in me immediately bristles. For, as is always the case, the evidence presented in favor of such ideas is always selective in scope. To be sure, the Bible teaches the value of hard work and thrift, and prohibits stealing and envy. At the same time, the Torah which Reconstructionists envision enforcing on all of society also taxes the people of Israel heavily (the various "tithes" add up to more than 23%), and such taxes are on produce/"wages," not consumption. Likewise it prohibits a farmer from going back over a harvested field to pick up any grain left behind. Such produce was rather to be left for "the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow" (Deut 24:19), who are not thereby deemed "moochers" for their taking of what they did not produce. Likewise, both Jesus (Mark 12:17) and Paul (Rom 13:1-7) assume the right of even Imperial governments to tax their subjects.

More importantly, however, the discussion often is carried out based on a fundamental misunderstanding. For the Bible nowhere lays out a definitive pattern for macro-economics any more than it does botany, astronomy, or, for that matter, biology. To understand it to do so fundamentally misunderstands what the Bible is about. And understanding the Bible this way makes one particularly susceptible to distortions caused by assumed metanarratives such as the typical American worldview—which was Professor Wright's point in the first place.

Calvinists—of whom both I and Wilson count ourselves—have a decided tendency to prefer "rigorous" ways of thinking and to let the chips fall where they may. Better to be consistent, so it seems, than emotionally wishy-washy. Such a tendency rears its ugly head in discussions of election and predestination, where the sovereignty of God is (rightly) extolled at the expense (wrongly) of grieving compassion for those subject to the awful decree of preterition and prostration at the mercy and grace shown to us who are called.  In the same way it is easy for Calvinists to fall into the trap provided by rigorous "austerity" ideology and to advocate a socially-Darwinian, Ayn Rand-like economic policy that, to be frank, conflicts both with the "data" on the ground and the mind of Christ, who taught us to love our neighbors—indeed, our enemies—as ourselves. For behind the bare statistics are real, flesh-and-blood people whose lives are inexorably affected by the economic realities of our time, people who count more in the grand scheme of things than ideology

We do not live in a world—not here in America, not in Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, Japan, or anywhere else where people are "free" and prosperous—in which people are free from sin and live by the "rules." Nor do we have a legitimate hope that the Holy Spirit will progressively work to produce such this side of Christ's parousia. The costs of living so-called "middle class" lives are escalating while wages are, at the same time, slipping. The costs of education are increasingly prohibitive for more and more people. Work is not compensated according to effort, results, and importance of the tasks performed. The twin forces of globalism and new technologies have unleashed economic forces that are likely to be detrimental to the livelihoods of scores of people brought up to expect more. And the "free market" loved by so many Christians has conspired to exacerbate rather than to alleviate these problems. The laizzes-faire impulse has resulted in an expanded and growing wage and wealth disparity that has fostered a growing inequality of opportunity in a land that pretends it stands for equality. To shrug one's shoulders and hope that the Spirit will reverse this trend is a pipe dream, as is the fantasy, which I have often heard espoused, that the church rather than the state should be the caregiver for the poor (Nobody living in any large urban center would ever make such a naive claim, even assuming such a task should be incumbent on the church; it isn't). Moreover, to suggest, as I have often heard, that "in the end" things will work out if we only stay the course (e.g., critics of FDR's New Deal), Keynes himself had the right perspective: "In the end we're all dead."

At bottom, such miscalculations have their root in two simple problems, with which I will close. The first is the perpetuation of an unhealthy individualism which is characteristically American. Far too many Christians see themselves almost entirely in individualistic terms, believing themselves to have little or no responsibility to the society as a whole. Yet if, as the author of Genesis clearly implies via the selfishly indulgent murderer, Cain, we are our brothers' keepers. I, for one, cannot understand how citizens of a nation whose government, as Abraham Lincoln so famously put it, is "of the people, by the people, and for the people" should resent economic (and healthcare) policies designed to make opportunity more equal across the board for all its citizens. That, it seems to me, is simply common human decency—or at least it should be common.

The second problem is the assumption that economic freedom is the highest good to which a society should aspire. Those that don't succeed—after all, most people will end up failing whether or not due to mistakes they make—don't deserve to be lifted up. Well, in absolute terms, maybe they don't. But it seems to me that followers of the Suffering Servant, who counted his own life of no account for the sake of his enemies, should rather be concerned with manifesting the same mercy to others they were shown by the Lord. There is no uglier sin than the self-righteous pride of those who forget St. Paul's dictum that everything they have they have received (1 Cor 4:7). Which leads to one final observation: laizzes-faire capitalism ultimately is based on an unchristian greed. This remains true no matter how hard Wilson and others attempt to transfer guilt to its critics as "envious" of the rich. Simply buying into the system is, to use the language of the New Testament, capitulation to the "world" and allowing oneself to be "molded" by the pattern of the present evil age (Rom 12:2). Ultimately, we as Christians pledge our only allegiance to the Kingdom of God and must live to implement its values, not those of the temporal society in which we live and to which we bow down in idolatrous nationalism. I hope it won't be the case, but sometimes I wonder if absolutist "free market" Christians will be disappointed when the Kingdom arrives in its consummation because it certainly won't look like what they expected ... or wanted.