Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Evangelicalism: Is It Merely a Sixth Grade Version of Christianity?


Over at Contemplative Christians Peter Traben Haas has embarked on a series of posts which he has entitled "Seven Steps to Leaving 'Evangelical Christianity' without Losing Your Faith." These posts serve as a manifesto, of sorts, for a Post-Evangelical form of Christianity more attuned to the oft-neglected contemplative dimension of faith that hides unnoticed in clear sight. He doesn't stop at this, however. Indeed, he explicitly charges Evangelicalism with being but a preparatory stage of spiritual development: foundational, to be sure, but intended to be transcended by further development on the Christian's "journey" of spiritual discovery:

Evangelical Christianity is a developmental stage of faith, like 6th grade is a stage of learning on the journey to post-graduate study. No one who wishes to grow stays in grade school. Everyone who wishes to grow graduates to higher/deeper levels of being and understanding. This is a fact. And I don’t assume I have reached the deepest level of learning either. That doesn’t happen in this lifetime. Everyone living is still on a journey of discovery. We are all open systems capable of further growth,development and indeed transformation.

Haas has listed the seven stages in his journey away from Evangelicalism to the present stage of his spiritual development (as of this writing, he has blogged only on steps 1 through 4):

– Step #1 “It’s OK to see God differently”
– Step #2 “It’s OK to see the Bible differently”
– Step #3 “It’s OK to see salvation differently”
– Step #4 “It’s OK to see the earth differently”
– Step #5 “It’s OK to see prayer differently”
– Step #6 “It’s OK to see sex differently”
– Step #7 “It’s OK to see your destiny differently”

Haas, who is a graduate of Princeton Seminary and is now a pastor at a PCUSA church in Waterloo, Iowa, touts his Evangelical credentials in a way reminiscent of other former or chastened Evangelicals like Frank Schaeffer and Dartmouth Professor Randall Balmer (for both of whom I have the utmost respect): the offspring of 1960s-70s Jesus People, "converted" at the age of 17 during an altar call at an "Evangelical" resort in New York's Adirondack Mountains, a graduate of a flagship "Evangelical" institution, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, indeed a "Pharisee of the Pharisees."

Indeed, some of his experiences resonate deeply with me, in particular, the almost comical futility of hit-and-run "evangelizing" of people in Chicago in order to fulfill MBI's required "witnessing" quota. For, you see, I had an identical experience at my own Christian college in Philadelphia in the mid-'70s, my failures only exacerbating the feelings of guilt inculcated by the Fundamentalist environment I then inhabited. When reading Haas, I am tempted to emulate my hero, St. Paul, when he ironically touted his own impeccable Jewish credentials to trump those proudly claimed by Jewish Christians he contemptuously labels "dogs" and "mutilators" (Philippians 3:1-11). For I am the offspring of an Evangelical Christian theologian, preacher, and professor; I have consciously been a Christian as long as I can remember; I attended and actively participated in the ministry of a large IFCA church in Havertown, Pennsylvania; I attended a Missouri Synod Lutheran Day School for grades 1-4; I graduated from Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University), where my father was head of the Bible Department; I have both a Th.M. and a Ph.D. in New Testament from the flagship Evangelical (not Fundamentalist) dispensationalist school, Dallas Theological Seminary; I am a member of the Evangelical Theological Society; I have taught Greek, New Testament, and Theology at the self-described "Evangelical" Lancaster Bible College. And, most important of all, I lost my position at that college, not once, but twice—the first time for failure to be a "cultural fit" with the school's ultra-conservative ethos, the second time because my "favorability" to the views of N. T. Wright and the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" offended a key "Reformed" member of the Bible Department.

The upshot: not only are my Evangelical credentials impeccable; if anyone has the right to grouse about the narrowness and intellectual stultification of what often passes for the Evangelical movement, it is I. Yet I am not one to throw in the towel on Evangelicalism. At least not yet. That does not mean, of course, that I have no criticisms of the state of the movement. I have written in that vein in the past, and will not continue to do so in the future. At least in the public perception, Evangelicalism is associated with anti-intellectualism and the narrow politics of the Religious Right. As a result, I have often contemplated dropping "Evangelical" as a self-designation. But what, I always end up asking myself, is a viable alternative?

Therein, I believe, lies Haas's problem. His definition of "Evangelicalism" is almost entirely determined by his experiences at Moody, and the complaints he enumerates are all related to the worldview and practices of the most conservative elements of the movement. In short: Haas's beef is with those who today describe themselves as "conservative Evangelicals," but who in reality are (often unreconstructed) Fundamentalists (for my discussion of this issue, see my post here). The term "Evangelical" originally was used to designate the churches of the Reformation who adhered to the New Testament "gospel" rediscovered by Luther, Calvin, et al. In the 1940s, however, it was co-opted by a number of Christian thinkers who were desirous of coming out of Fundamentalism and developing a more intellectually rigorous and culturally relevant version of conservative Protestant Christianity. Such Evangelicalism is often seen to rest on four "pillars," as articulated by University of Stirling historian David Bebbington: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. In broad strokes this is fine. However, as Gordon College Professor Harold Heie has demonstrated, each of these "marks" is amenable to narrower and broader understandings, which has unfortunately led to the definitional quagmire Evangelicalism finds itself in today.

Needless to say, the Evangelicalism to which I adhere and which I articulate is not the Neo-Fundamentalism against which Haas has (rightly, at least in part) reacted. It is the Evangelicalism of the late F. F. Bruce, who in his tenure at the University of Manchester demonstrated that a lively personal faith in Christ and largely conservative theological and historical conclusions can co-exist with a rigorous utilization of the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible. It is the Evangelicalism of PCA Pastor Tim Keller and the late John Stott, who resolutely maintained that the soteriological and social dimensions of the gospel message fit hand-in-glove—or better, that they are twin dimensions of the gospel of the Kingdom that must be kept together. It is the Evangelicalism of the venerable Anglican theologian Jim Packer, who understood that faithfulness to Scripture and to the God who inspired it demands a conservationist stance toward the earth's environment. It is the Evangelicalism of the aforementioned N. T. Wright, whose faith in God and Scripture is such that he refuses to hide behind the fortress of tried and true viewpoints, preferring to let history and exegesis lead where they may despite the obloquy that has been directed toward him by fearful traditionalists. Most of all, it is the Evangelicalism of my own late father who, despite the Fundamentalist context in which he largely operated, was above all a disciple of the Apostle Paul, who lived each and every minute of his life by the grace in which he stood (Rom 5:2) and understood, like no one else in his circles, the freedom for which Christ set his people free (Gal 5:1, 13).

I understand the shortcomings of Evangelicalism. Likewise, I recognize the value of the contemplative dimension to spiritual growth advocated by Pastor Haas. It is one I freely admit has been one of my own shortcomings. But such caveats do not gainsay the strengths of Evangelicalism which, at its best, seeks to ground all Christian belief and practice in a historically- and theologically-sensitive interpretation of the biblical text. And this is where I have serious problems with what Pastor Haas has written. In particular, his "Step 3" ("It's OK to see salvation differently") needs major qualifications and corrections. It is to make these qualifications and corrections that I hope to write two further posts in the next week or two.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin', Part 3: Luke's Sermon on the Plain



Cosimo Rosselli, Sermonne della Montagne (1481-82, Sistine Chapel)
(image@commons.wikimedia.org)

Luke's somewhat truncated version of what is popularly known as the "Sermon on the Mount" of Matthew 5-7 is found in Luke 6:20-49. Since the Evangelist introduces the "sermon" by stating that Jesus sat down "on a level place" (epi topou pedinou, 6:17), it is regularly referred to as the "Sermon on the Plain," its obvious traditional identity with the Matthean version notwithstanding. In its context, this sermon directly contrasts the sneering, hostile response to Jesus by both his fellow citizens of Nazareth and the wider circle of Galilean scribes and Pharisees (4:1-6:11) with the character and status of his followers, the ragtag and unlikely bunch of "sinners," healed demoniacs and lepers, Sabbath "breakers", et al., who constituted the true Israel led by the 12 appointed as "apostles" (6:12-16). Like Matthew, Luke has Jesus introduce his discourse by uttering a series of "Beatitudes." Unlike Matthew, he appends a series of corresponding "woes" to the Beatitudes:


20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

The kingdom of God, in other words, is a realm in which conventional wisdom—the wisdom of the world, i.e., the present age—is turned on its head. In contrast to the Matthean version, which pronounces "blessedness" on the meek, pure in heart, people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc., Luke's Beatitudes are less amenable to a moralistic misinterpretation. As Joel Green rightly notes, Luke's Beatitudes have an ascriptive rather than a prescriptive purpose (The Gospel according to Luke, 265). In other words, they define the ways things are rather than encourage the adoption of a certain pattern of behavior.

The term "blessed" (makarios) in these verses corresponds to the Hebrew ’ašrê (e.g., Ps. 1:1). It is often (e.g., by the NRSV) translated "happy," which is fine so long as one recognizes that this "happiness" is an objective state, not a subjective emotional condition that, in this world, always proves elusive and fleeting. On the contrary, the people deemed makarios are "happy" in the sense of being fortunate as the result of having been "blessed" (Greek eulogētos or eulogēmenos) as beneficiaries of God's approval and favor. The term "woe" (ouai), on the other hand, is reflective of the Hebrew hôy/’ôy, and ominously conveys the opposite of such "happiness," viz., the grief or doom that applies to the people in question.

The ironic, counterintuitive nature of Jesus' pronouncement is staggering: objective "happiness" is ascribed to those whose existentially unhappy lot now (note Luke's emphatic addition of the adverb nyn in both the second and third Beatitudes and Woes) involves poverty, hunger, grief, hatred, and exclusion. On the other hand, "woe" is ascribed those whom the world now considers fortunate, viz., the prosperous, the sated, the flippantly amused, and the admired. Jesus' logic, of course, is not based on empirical observation, let alone wishful thinking, but rather on the sure foundation of biblical eschatology: it is the kingdom of God that will effect this eschatological reversal of roles. Those followers of Jesus who find themselves marginalized, oppressed, ostracized, and persecuted, who obey the words of Jesus and live the life of love he preaches in this sermon, are assured vindication just as their oppressors are guaranteed to come to grief. And the reason for this is the simple fact that "[theirs] is (estin) the kingdom of God" (6:20). In other words, they can be assured of the future reversal of the kingdom because the future kingdom had arrived already in the person of Jesus himself. And because of the presence of the future, the one imperative Jesus utters in these verses makes perfect sense. Persecution and oppression, rather than being the occasion for bitching and moaning—American evangelical Christians please take note—ought to inspire joy and festivity instead, for such opposition is but a token of the fundamental clash of worldviews that Jesus' mission brought into the open. Indeed, such opposition serves as a reliable sign that they are on the right side and that reward awaits them in God's presence (6:23). As the Beatitudes put it, they will "laugh" and rejoice as the covenantally-promised restoration of God's people becomes a reality. They will be "filled" as they participate in the "messianic banquet" prophesied by Isaiah (Isa 25:6-8; 49:10-13; cf. Luke 12:37; 13:29; 14:14-24; 22:16, 18).

Of course, to those readers of Luke who have been paying attention, what Jesus says here is not entirely surprising. Indeed, a multitude of echoes may be found in the Beatitudes to both Mary's Magnificat ("blessed" [1:45, 48]; "hungry" versus "filled" [1:53]; "rich" [1:53]; for my discussion of Mary's hymn, see here) and Jesus' programmatic synagogue address at Nazareth, where he made the outrageous claim that he was the Spirit-anointed herald of "good news to the poor" prophesied by Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19). As with Mary's assertion that the eschatological reversal had already taken place in nuce with the conception of Jesus, as with Jesus' own declaration that the Isaianic hope had been fulfilled in the synagogue at Nazareth, so here Jesus proclaims a blessedness on the downtrodden before the time when the eschatological reversal is realized in human experience by virtue of the inauguration of God's kingdom in his own ministry. This, to use the theological jargon of the academy, is inaugurated eschatology, where the realities of God's promised future are brought to bear on life in the present age (the "already") in advance of the final consummation of those realities, for which we still hope (the "not yet"). And it is because of inaugurated eschatology that the decisive paradigm shift presented by Jesus in the Beatitudes both achieves resonance and demands proleptic implementation in the community of Jesus' followers in the here and now (more on this in a future post).

Who, then, are the "poor," "hungry," mournful, and downtrodden whose good fortune are announced here? As is well known, Matthew's version of the Beatitudes pronounces the good fortune of the "poor in spirit" (ptōchoi tō pneumati) and "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" (hoi peinōntes kai dipsōntes tēn dikaiosynēn) (Matt 5:3, 6). Two approaches, in particular, must be avoided. The first, common among "conservative" popularizers, is to read the Beatitudes through the grid of Matthew and thus to "spiritualize" the reference to the "poor." The "poor," on this reading, are those who are "spiritually poor" irrespective of their economic situation, those who recognize their spiritual poverty and depend entirely on God for their spiritual status. The second, more common among "liberals" and academics, is that approach's mirror image. Rightly viewing the Lukan version to be closer to the Q tradition from which both Evangelists drew, they deduce that the referent should be restricted to the economically disadvantaged per se. Richard Hays, for example, asserts that "Luke rejects the spiritualizing interpretation of these Beatitudes" (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 124).

Of course, as Hans Conzelmann noted long ago, Luke was not guilty of "Ebionitism" (The Theology of St. Luke, 233). Poverty in and of itself was (and is) not praiseworthy, a desirable state that automatically portends a glorious future in the eschaton. Indeed, verse 22, which attributes the persecution of such people as being "on account of the Son of Man" (heneka tou hiou tou anthrōpou) makes it clear that the intended reference is to the followers of Jesus, portrayed as the marginalized and suffering remnant. Thus an implicit spiritual component to the "poverty" of the people Jesus congratulated here is clear, more than justifying Matthew's "spiritualizing" redaction. In the Old Testament, the "poor" (Heb. ‘ānî) are what we might term "the pious poor," those in special need of God's help (cf. Ps. 12:5; 14:6; 22:24; 37:14; 69:29; 70:5; 86:1; 88:15; Isa 61:1). In time "poor" became the preferred self-designation of the impoverished, oppressed remnant people of God (‘ănāwîm; cf., e.g., Isa 10:2; 26:6; Pss.Sol. 5.2, 11; 10.6; 15.1; 18.2; 1QpHab 12.3; 1QM 14.7; 1QH 5.13-14) (cf. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7 [ICC] 443). The point, as is recognized by the "spiritualizers" of the Beatitudes, is that sustained economic deprivation and social distress prove to be triggers that cause the poor to look to God alone to supply their needs and, ultimately, to vindicate them against their oppressors. As Darrell Bock nicely puts it, Luke is speaking here in "soteriological generalizations" (Luke 1:1-9:50 [BECNT] 574). It is the poor who, in contrast to the rich's tendency to find security in wealth and social prestige, tend to find their security in God alone. And it is to such poor who place their security and hope in God alone to which Jesus sends his congratulations here.

But it would be a grave mistake to downplay, let alone deny, the socio-economic element explicit in the term.  Not only does the term ptōchos primarily speak of economic poverty in the Greek literature of the period (LSJ, s.v.), the Old Testament background referred to above clearly underlines this component. Moreover, an emphasis on economic privation here comports nicely with Luke's sustained polemic against wealth and possessions in his Gospel (along with plentiful material drawn from Mark and/or Q, note the uniquely Lukan parables of the Rich Fool [Luke 12:13-21] and the Rich Man and Lazarus [16:19-31], the latter of which will be the focus of my next post in this series). 

It is all too easy for affluent Westerners to ride roughshod over what Jesus said in these verses because of their dominant cultural assumptions, according to which the poor are, in general, responsible for their own economic distress. To be sure, they give lip service to a category of the "deserving poor," but by and large cast aspersion on the poor in their midst as shiftless denizens of a "culture of dependence." (Even worse, they often criticize their government for sending "their" money for poverty relief in third world countries, thereby ignoring, to their shame, the desperation of their fellow human beings.) When I hear my fellow Christians say such things, it grieves me, for this is a distinction and an attitude not shared by our Lord. Poverty, of course, is ultimately rooted in the sin that has, from the beginning of human history in the mists of time, defaced God's world. And it has never been the particular concern of the wealthy and powerful to mitigate the suffering of the poor voluntarily, out of their own good heart, as it were. Jesus, however, has promised an eschatological reversal in which his oppressed people are vindicated and their oppressors brought low. This is no bit of pie in the sky, baseless optimism, however, for it is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in his ministry and (especially) in his death and resurrection, that serves as the guarantee of this eventuation. This reign, then as now, is invisible, and so we must walk by faith and not by sight. But, we believe, this reign is a reality, and so we must live both in hope and in the attempt to implement the values of the kingdom, not least in the communities of faith in which we live. How this should look must await the final installment of this series.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston and Evil: A Christian Perspective


Yesterday, as I watched the unfolding events in Boston, I was struck by a common theme enunciated by countless commentators: what we witnessed was evil, pure and simple. The clear assumption was that this is what evil looks like, and we must come to grips with it, as shocking and disconcerting as it may be. Another assumption: the "we" who must come to grips with this evil, the mass of common (and uncommon) folk who witnessed the carnage and its aftermath, are not evil.

Of course, President Obama had articulated this narrative on Tuesday, when he contrasted that "heinous," "cowardly," and "evil" act of terrorism with the response of the "good people of Boston" to the tragedy. Compounding the problem were the (to be expected) responses of partisans of the left and the right to the terrorist act. Many on the left were convinced, before any evidence had been presented, that the bomber(s) were Timothy McVeigh wannabes, socially dislocated right wing, anti-government fanatics. Many more on the right were convinced, a priori, that the perpetrators had to be "Islamist" extremists, whether associated with Al-Qaeda or not. And when a Saudi national, straight out of central casting, was taken into custody as a "person of interest," they thought themselves vindicated. Of course, when it turned out that the bombers, though Muslim, were from the Caucasus, legal immigrants with no clear history of radicalized Islamist beliefs—i.e., the reasons for their act have yet to be determined—the ugliest xenophobic tendencies of the American populace manifested themselves aplenty. Immediately, xenophobes such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) claimed that this week's events should derail the immigration reform that even George W. Bush supported. Prejudice, it seems, can often cloak itself in the pieties of pragmatism and "national security." Yes, radical Islam presents a very real and serious problem for the West. But not every, or even most, Asian Muslims are potential terrorists, and so paint-with-a-broom stereotyping of them in this way is both unhelpful and unjust [one also wonders whether or not they realize that terrorist acts are not the sole province of Muslims: witness such white, European/American terrorists as the home-grown McVeigh, the IRA, or the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik]. It simply is easier to brand such people as the "Other" and, hence, to justify treating them with contempt and setting ourselves up as paragons of rectitude.

At times like these the shell-shocked community regularly calls for "justice" to be meted out to the perpetrators. However, it is a particular type of "justice" that is desired. It certainly isn't the type of restorative, social justice called for by such Hebrew prophets as Amos. Indeed, many who are calling for "justice" in Boston want nothing to do with that type of justice, considering it, despite its biblical basis, a "liberal" notion. No. What they want is retribution. What they desire is vengeance. They want nothing less than summary execution of the offenders. They want them—I have heard this with my own ears—to "rot in hell" for eternity.

My concern is not for the world's reaction to the evil we witnessed in Boston on Monday. It is for how we Christians respond. Sad to say it has not differed substantially from that of the populace as a whole. Fundamental to any genuine Christian response is the recognition of our own complicity in the evil that wracks the world. Perhaps the best illustration of the optimal response I have heard comes from a (possibly apocryphal) story about G. K. Chesterton. As the story goes, The Times of London once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking them, "What's wrong with the world today?" Chesterton supposedly wrote back in his typically pithy way, "Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G. K. Chesterton."

I have never been able to verify whether or not the great Chesterton ever wrote this. Nevertheless, the sentiment expressed in the story is exactly correct. Skeptics may forever raise the issue of evil as an argument against theism. Believers may try valiantly to answer their skepticism with philosophical arguments valid or invalid. But unless one recognizes that the evil that has disordered God's world runs like a fault line through the core of each of our persons, any response is doomed to failure. Indeed, one of the rediscoveries of biblical truth associated with the work of Martin Luther was St. Paul's offensive teaching that God justifies the ungodly through faith solely on the basis of what Christ achieved in his death and resurrection on their behalf (Romans 4:5). In other words, the terrorist and I really are no different from one another. We both stand on equal footing as sinners before the judgment seat of the sovereign God. It is, therefore, illegitimate to act as if he is "evil" and I am "good." If I am to be "saved," it emphatically has nothing to do with what I bring to the table, for, as the prophet graphically says in another context, "All our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag" (Isaiah 64:6). That means, of course, that the church does not consist of "respectable" or "good" people, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise, usually to the detriment of our public witness.

This brings me to one further point. I understand the shock, horror, disgust and, yes, anger at what the bombers did on Monday. Just seeing pictures of the faces of little Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi, and Krystle Campbell brings tears to my face and anger to my soul at the senselessness of promising lives cut short by sinful violence. But, as a Christian, I do have control over how I respond to my innate reactions. I have heard and read too many Christians in the past week who have emulated the response of the world at large. In effect, such Christians are behaving like the crowd gathered for the execution of the "witch" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, calling enthusiastically for her to be burned. Yet our Lord said that we must love our enemies and pray for our persecutors in imitation of our merciful Father in heaven (Matthew 5:44-45). We, of course, dutifully pray for the families of the victims and for the city of Boston as a whole for healing in the wake of this tragedy. But have we prayed for the bombers? Or do we deem them unworthy of the saving grace of God we are eager to accept for ourselves? Do we zealously call for "justice" to be done even as we are thankful that God has forgiven us, having substituted himself in the judgement we had coming for our sins? Have we lost faith in ultimate justice, the justice that recognizes that, as God himself said, "Vengeance is mine. I will repay" (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19)—the justice that disqualifies any human quest for vengeance?

This is not to discount the role of legitimate government in executing justice (see, e.g., Romans 13:4). But it does call into question the attitudes we as Christians have to such governmental action. Moreover, it underscores the fact, too little recognized, that violent retribution will ultimately do nothing to stop the violence that stains human existence in this fallen world. To paraphrase Jesus, evil we will always have among us. Let us, therefore, take seriously our role as agents of God's kingdom and work to implement the victory won by Jesus in loving, sacrificial service to the fallen world in which we live.

Friday, April 19, 2013

In Retrospect: Sixers versus Celtics, 1968 Playoffs Edition


Four Hall-of-Famers (The Sixers' Wilt Chamberlain and
Chet Walker, the Celtics'  Bailey Howell and Bill Russell)
fighting for a loose ball in the 1968 NBA Eastern Division
Finals (image@sports.terra.com)

There are two things of which I, as a 56 year old Philadelphian, am sure. The first is that the City of Brotherly Love is snake-bitten with regard to its professional sports franchises. The second is that, though time flies—how can it be that I ever got this old?—the days of one's youth remain  alive in one's consciousness in a perpetual present tense. And so I recall a painful episode from my youth that still seems like it happened yesterday: Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Division Championship Series, which was played 45 years ago to this day, on 19 April 1968, at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia, and which I watched at home on our family's black-and-white Zenith TV.

The Boston Celtics of the 1950s-60s remain, along with the New York Yankees of 1949-64, one of the two greatest dynasties in the history of American sports. From the 1956-57 through the 1968-69 seasons, The Celtics won 11 NBA championships in the span of 13 seasons, including an unprecedented (and never equaled) 8 in a row from '58-'59 to '65-'66. Fueling this run was a bevy of Hall-of-Fame talent: Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, and, of course, Bill Russell. In the dynasty's early years, particularly after Wilt Chamberlain entered the league in 1959, Boston was challenged in the Eastern Division by the Philadelphia Warriors, who had won the title back in 1956 on the back of Philadelphia-bred star Paul Arizin. But when the Warriors headed west to San Francisco prior to the 1962-63 season, Philly was left without a franchise until, a year later, they enticed the Syracuse Nationals to move there for the '63-'64 season. 

But it was not until 15 January 1965, when the Sixers traded for hometown hero Chamberlain, that one of the sport's greatest rivalries took off. That year, despite finishing the season with a 40-40 record, the Sixers extended the defending champ Celtics to a 7th game in the Eastern finals, losing 110-109 when John Havlicek famously stole Hal Greer's inbound pass with 5 seconds remaining. The following year the Sixers actually beat out the Celtics for the top spot in the East with a 55-27 record behind MVP Chamberlain's league-leading 33.5 PPG and 24.6 RPG. Nevertheless, the Celtics rebounded to whip the Sixers in 5 games in the Eastern finals en route to their 8th consecutive championship.

1966-67, however, was another story. With Chamberlain having his greatest season (24.1 PPG, 24.2 RPG, 7.8 APG, and an otherworldly .683 FG percentage), more than ample support from Hal Greer (22.1 PPG) and rising stars Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham, Luke Jackson, and Wali Jones, the Sixers raced out of the blocks by winning 46 out of their first 50 games, finishing with a then-record 68-13 record. In the Eastern finals, they demolished the Celtics in 5 games. Almost as an afterthought, they defeated Rick Barry's San Francisco Warriors in 6 games to win the championship. To the world it seemed that Chamberlain had finally exorcised his personal demon by vanquishing Russell. Moreover, with stars Russell and Sam Jones nearing the end of their playing days, it appeared that the Celtic dynasty was over.

And so it appeared as the 1967-68 season progressed. Chamberlain, despite his always-abysmal free throw shooting reaching its career nadir (.380 [!]), had another brilliant MVP season (24.3 PPG, 23.8 RPG, 8.6 APG [leading the league in total assists, the only center ever to have accomplished the feat]), as did Greer (24.1), Walker (17.9), and sixth man extraordinaire Cunningham (18.9). The Sixers once again led the league in wins, with 62, leaving the 54-win Celtics in the dust. And so, when the two rivals met once again in the Eastern finals, the Sixers were the heavy favorites, despite losing Cunningham to a broken wrist in their first round series against the New York Knicks, and Luke Jackson playing with a sore hamstring. And after the first four games, the Sixers were in the driver's seat. On 14 April they had defeated the Celtics, 110-105, at the Boston Garden, with four players (Greer, Chamberlain, Walker, and Jackson) scoring more than 20 points. In doing so, they had taken a 3 games to 1 lead in the best of 7 series. And they were heading home to their spanking new arena, the Spectrum, for game 4.

Not surprisingly, for hard-bitten Philly fans, things didn't pan out according to the conventional wisdom. In game 5, led by—no surprise here—37 points from "Mr. Clutch" Sam Jones and 29 from John Havlicek, the Celts blew away the overly confident Sixers in the 4th quarter, turning a tight game into a 122-104 blowout. Back in Boston on Wednesday, Havlicek led a balanced attack with 28 points to overcome Hal Greer's 40 points as the Celts evened the series at 3 games apiece with a 114-106 victory. Ominously, Chamberlain, though he scored 20 points, shot an inexcusable 8-22 from the foul line—not surprising, perhaps, but a key component to a loss that didn't have to be. And that set the stage for the, for Philly fans, devastating game 7 on 19 April at the Spectrum.


The rudimentary box score of the fateful game
(image@basketball-reference.com)
Game 7 was low scoring and tight the whole way, with Boston hanging to a small lead most of the way. Sam Jones led a balanced attack with 22 points and scored the final, clinching points of a 100-96 Celtic victory that propelled the Green to yet another championship series, which they, of course, won over the Los Angeles Lakers in 6 games. The thing that struck me at the time was the curious fact that Wilt took only one shot in the entire second half with the series on the line. He ended up with only 14 points, once again failing miserably at the line by shooting 6-15 (Russell, for his part, wasn't any better, shooting 4-10 at the line and scoring 12 points; the game was largely won on the backs of the shooting prowess of Jones, Havlicek, and Larry Siegfried). But one shot? Chamberlain's explanation was infuriating at the time: Coach Hannum hadn't told him to shoot! (Hannum's response: "I never had to tell him to shoot before" [!]). Considering the fact that the Sixers were without Cunningham, and that Greer, Walker, and Wali Jones were ice cold the whole game, one could be excused for thinking his curious logic to border on inexcusable dereliction of duty as the league's reigning MVP. It is true that the Celtics tried to hamper him by having guards Jones and Siegfried collapse on him when he got the ball in the low post. But that is no excuse. In the history of the game, only Shaquille O'Neal has approached the physical dominance the Dipper had back in the '60s. There is no way two guards shorter than 6'5" could have stopped him in his physical prime at the age of 32. The truth, as I see it now, has to do with Wilt's infamously fragile psyche. The late giant had been haunted for years by unflattering comparisons to Russell who, great as he was, paled by comparison with Chamberlain's natural ability on the offensive end of the game. Chamberlain, it appears, was determined to win the way Russell always had, by deferring offensively to his teammates. Later, in 1971-72, he did just that with the Lakers, when he had Jerry West and Gail Goodrich to pick up the offensive slack. But, in 1968, his strategy failed miserably.
The two (literal and figurative)
giants at the center of it all
(image@mrbasketball.com)


The aftermath of the series was devastating to the Sixers franchise. In the offseason, Wilt was shipped off to Los Angeles (where he would once again lose under suspicious circumstances in a 7 game series to the Celtics in Russell's and Jones's last season in the following year's championship series) for the triumvirate of Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark, and Darrall Imhoff, the repercussions of which trade would ultimately lead to the historically bad 1972-73 team, which had a 9-73 record. Only with the acquisitions of George McGinnis and Julius Erving later that decade, and of Moses Malone in 1982, would the team once again reach the pinnacle of the league in 1983 ...

Which gets me thinking. Chamberlain had scored 4 points on two free throws and a "Dipper Dunk" over Russell in the last minute of the 1965 Eastern finals. What might have happened if Greer had succeeded in getting his in-bounds pass to Chet "the Jet" Walker and the Sixers had won that game? What if Cunningham had not gotten injured in '68? If such had happened, Chamberlain surely would never have left Philly, the Sixers well could have become a dynasty, and Wilt almost assuredly would be considered the greatest player ever to lace up sneakers. But the fact remains that Wilt, despite his unparalleled physical gifts (which, BTW, have never been equaled, let alone surpassed, in the ensuing decades), did not have the killer instinct we could have wished he had, and that Russell most assuredly possessed. And it would be Michael Jordan, who matched Chamberlain's physical gifts with Russell's ruthlessness, who would end up being generally regarded as the game's greatest player. I'm fine with that. I loved Chamberlain, Russell, and Jordan. But, as a proud Philadelphian, I can be excused for wondering what might have been.



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" After 50 Years


(image@thegospelcoalition.org)




Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s writing of his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" on 16 April 1963. At the time I was a mere 6-year old first grader living in a then-white section of West Philadelphia—in other words, I had no idea who Dr. King was and would not have understand what he was doing even if I had. In the ensuing decades, of course, I have learned much about the esteemed civil rights leader. Despite his manifold flaws and moral failings, I have come to regard Dr. King as one of a handful of most important American thinkers and public figures of the 20th century. And, in my view, his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written in a dank cell in the margins of a newspaper and assorted other scraps of paper off the top of his head, is the most important thing he ever wrote.




On the 3rd of April, 1963, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Alabama Christian Movement for Civil Rights began a nonviolent campaign to protest segregation and discrimination against African-Americans in Birmingham. On 10 April, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued an injunction disallowing the demonstrations and picketing in which King's groups were involved. When they made it clear they would disallow the Judge's ruling, King, Ralph Abernathy, and others were summarily arrested and thrown into jail. While there King read the newspaper of 12 April, which contained a plea written by eight white Alabama ministers entitled "A Call for Unity."  The "plea" was, in fact, a thinly-disguised polemic against Dr. King, whom they deemed an "outsider" stirring up the pot by using "extreme" and "unwise" measures that "incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be." While patronizingly acknowledging "the natural impatience of people who feel their hopes are slow in being realized," they urged "calm" and patience while such matters were handled "in the courts" "for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems."

King's letter (to read it in its entirety, see here), which was smuggled out of his cell piecemeal by his attorney, is, in effect, a powerful apologia for his strategy of nonviolent protest/civil disobedience in the form of an open letter to the white clergymen who had issued their "call" for "unity." King's impromptu argumentation, with its appeal to natural law and easy familiarity with the Bible, Socrates, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, St. Augustine, and others, is as impressively staggering as it is profound. 

King saw through the hypocrisy and disingenuousness of his detractors' call for patience in these matters. After all, his people had waited more than 300 years to receive the natural rights which they had heretofore been denied. And he knew full well that the call for patience was merely a tactic to perpetuate the discrimination his opponents believed comported with the natural order. In such circumstances his quotation of Chief Justice Earl Warren, "[J]ustice too long delayed is justice denied," was right on the mark. Likewise, his acceptance of the "extremist" label thay had flung on him was rhetorically brilliant. Citing Jesus, St. Paul, Martin Luther, and others as "extremists" demonstrated that extremism, per se, is not a problem. What matters is that about which one is an extremist:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

The irony that so many of King's detractors would later cheer Barry Goldwater's dictum, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," is delicious only in rhetorical terms.

Intellectually, King's most significant insight came in his defense of civil disobedience. Against those who self-righteously pointed to law, King made the correct distinction between just and unjust laws:

One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Citing the biblical example of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego together with that of the Boston Tea Party was merely the final turn of the screw to those proud of both their Christianity and patriotic Americanism.

However, to me the most poignant element of King's letter was his regretful indictment of the white church [As an aside, the mere fact of "white" and "black" churches is Exhibit A of the indictment of an American church that apparently has never taken Paul's dictum of Galatians 3:28 seriously.] His most poignant words are these:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

This was the real tragedy. I well remember the day in which Fundamentalist church leaders would illegitimately drive a wedge between the "spiritual" and "social" dimensions of the Christian gospel, even claiming that the latter had nothing to do with the gospel [Even then the connection of "liberal" theology and "liberal" politics had been assumed. "Why?" is a question to which I have never received an adequate answer.] Even worse, when I moved to Dallas, Texas in 1979, I distinctly remember being appalled when learned that the famous W. A. Criswell, pastor of the 50,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, had in 1956 publicly opposed integration (a stance which he later reversed in 1968), and listened to him defend racially-segregated worship. I was somewhat less surprised to learn that Jerry Falwell had, in 1958, spoken out against the Warren Court's 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and had, in 1964, denounced the Civil Rights Acts as the "Civil Wrongs Act." These are men who were regarded by my Evangelical fellow travelers as stalwarts of the faith. I then did not regard them as such. And the years have not changed my opinion of them. Yes, I understand that I am a Northerner, and that official segregation was foreign to my experience. But these were men who supposedly based their worldview on the Bible, which is far from ambiguous on the matters that have a bearing on this issue. Simply put, they were without excuse. Good (or at least "conservative") theology amounts to a hill of beans when it is wed to practice that denies the very heart of a gospel based on God's fulfillment of his promises to Abraham. And to act as if our country's original sin has been paid for, that the graveyard in our collective closet is now irrelevant, and that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, African-Americans now play on a level playing field, is both unrealistic and reprehensible. None of us theologians are guiltless, of course, and we must always be willing to remove the redwood trees from our own eyes before we cast aspersion on our brothers for the specks of dust we perceive in theirs. But it still grieves me when I hear supposed followers of Jesus Christ speak and act in ways that King's interlocutors would have approved. It is for this reason that King's prophetic call in 1963 is still relevant in 2013. May we never forget.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

God and Hell on Earth: Flogging Molly, the Incarnation, and the Cross of Christ

(image@floggingmolly.com)




















I have often said, only partly in jest, that no one should be placed in a position of spiritual leadership in the church until they are at least 40 years of age (the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to exercising academic leadership positions at Christian colleges or seminaries). Part of the reason, as St. Paul wisely said to his protege Timothy when he disqualified a new convert (neophyton) from the role/office of "overseer" (episkopē, i.e., an elder or, later, a "bishop"), was to avoid the pitfall of arrogance or conceit (hina mē typhōtheis) to which such such youngsters (spiritual or otherwise) are prone (1 Tim 3:6). To this I would add another reason: most younger people have simply not experienced enough of life's inescapable vicissitudes. Or, to put it more bluntly, most of them have not been worn down or refined sufficiently by the suffering and misery—the living hell on earth, as it were—that life in a fallen world brings as its ineluctable companion. Younger ministers and scholars may have achieved "success" in ministry or academia, some at the expense of personal integrity, others imperceptibly assimilating the American (i.e., the "world's") understanding of what "success" entails, but almost all failing to develop genuine empathy and sympathy for those who have suffered disappointment and loss.

I write as an academician. As such I have grappled for decades with the issue of theodicy, particularly theodicy of a distinctively Western variety: how can a holy, loving, and all-powerful God allow both moral (sin) and "natural" (earthquakes, fires, etc.) evil? Or, to put the matter less theologically, why do bad things often happen to "good" people? I will not bore you with an academic treatise on this issue. Suffice it to say that the position which I hold, known as "compatibilism," may satisfy the tests of exegetical and theological rigor, but can, at times, be presented in a way that is less compelling emotionally. This is particularly the case if such a view of God's sovereignty is wed to a picture of the divine "impassibility" that portrays God as, for all practical purposes, a metaphysical iceberg. I understand and sympathize with the theological and Christological concerns that led to the development of this doctrine in the ancient Greek church (for an up-to-date collection of essays, cf. the recent volume, Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, edited by James F. Keating and Thomas Joseph White). Nevertheless, unless one is careful, one easily falls right into the trap set by scoffers and the impious who castigate a supposed God "up in the sky" for, at best, inability to deal with evil and, at worst, a lack of concern and unwillingness to "get his hands dirty" in doing anything to alleviate it or mitigate its effects.

A case in point is Dubliner Dave King, the leader and frontman of the brilliant Irish/American punk band Flogging Molly. As with Irishmen of all sorts, the church is an omnipresent fact of the cultural landscape which nourished him. Indeed, in the liner notes to one of the band's albums, King thanked the Catholic Church "for years of Heavenly Material." He is no believer, however, as may be gleaned from one of the quieter but no less riveting numbers of Flogging Molly's 2008 album, Float. The song in question is "Us of Lesser Gods," the lyrics of which read as follows:



There's a breeze that's blowin' in from the land
Instead of salt air all we breathe in is sand
Crippled the cloud that once brought the rain
Good job now we'll never see our coasts again


But those of us, those of us
Us of Lesser Gods
Won't eat till we're hungry
Won't drink till we're parched
But those of us, those of us
Who forget where we're from
Create now the Hell where no devil could spawn
Take me back, take me back
To the way life used to be



A whisper's now sayin'
What words used to speak
Starve must the child, hungry sex on T.V.
For no act of contrition
Will pardon the soul
The damage now glistens
See how it glows



But those of us, those of us
Us of Lesser Gods
Won't eat till we're hungry
Won't drink till we're parched
But those of us, those of us
Who forget where we're from
Create now the Hell where no devil could spawn
Take me back, take me back
To the way Life used to be



Yesterday is better than it is today
And today will be better than tomorrow they say
We don't want what you know
But we know what we want
That's 'Live and Let Live'
We're all different that counts



But those of us, those of us
Us of Lesser Gods
Won't eat till we're hungry
Won't drink till we're parched
But those of us, those of us
Who forget where we're from
Create now the Hell where no devil could spawn
Take me back, take me back
To the way life used to be



Dark is the shallow man
Proud without pride
Worn out comes the welcome
From a truth that never lies
Weep now for the tear
Cold on the face
So come down from your Heaven, Lord
Let me show you Hell on Earth
Take me back
To the way Life's never been


This is a brilliant song, and one whose refrain resonates with countless people in the postmodern West. And, no doubt, many purported followers of Jesus think and act as if God were safely at home "up" in heaven, only to be disturbed on Sundays, when convenient or when his help is desired. But is this the portrait of God found in Scripture?

The answer, of course, is "no." And the answer, not surprisingly, is found in New Testament Christology. The Nicene Creed faithfully interprets the New Testament when it confesses Christ to be "very God of very God." Often people act as if the "known" element in the confession is "God," and thus understand the incarnate Christ in ways that stand in more than a little tension with the parallel confession of Christ's genuine humanity. I have often thought it better to proceed the other way around, viz., to learn about what God is like by looking to Christ. The place to start is with St. Paul's famous "Christ hymn" in Philippians 2:6-11, which he writes (or cites, if he is adapting a preexisting tradition) in order to commend humility and other-directedness within the church community (Phil 2:1-4). Verses 5-11 read thus (RSV):

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


The Philippian church, as evidenced by the squabble between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), apparently was a fissiparous bunch, which Paul diagnosed as being due to "selfishness" (eritheia) and "empty conceit" (kenodoxia) (Phil 2:3). Accordingly, they needed a fundamental reorientation of their "way of thinking" (phroneite [2:5]) so as to manifest genuine concern for one another. Such concern, however, ought not to be motivated by a bare altruism, but rather by the example of Christ himself (2:6-11), whose "career" provides the template for proper Christian relationships within the community. Not only this, it provides insight into the character of the God Christians worship.

Christ, according to Paul, existed "in the form of God" (en morphē theou). The meaning of the term morphē  here has proved somewhat elusive. Lexically, it denotes a "form" or "shape," not in terms of the external features by which a given thing is recognized (for that, the term schēma would have been more appropriate), but rather of its essential or intrinsic attributes. In the present context, Paul's intent is clarified both by the resumptive expression "(this) equality with God" (to einai isa theō; Greek students will recognize the presence of the anaphoric article with the infinitive einai, signifying a reference back to en morphē theou) and the explicit contrast with "the form of a slave" (morphē doulou) which Christ took in the act of "emptying himself." The preexistent Christ, in other words, possessed the very nature of God and, accordingly, exercised the prerogatives commensurate with his divine nature. 

Despite this, however, Christ acted in a way no petty oriental despot would ever have imagined. The clause ouch harpagmon hēgēsato in verse 6 has occasioned no little discussion (indeed, in the first piece I ever read from his pen, N. T. Wright, in a 1986 article in the Journal of Theological Studies, discusses 17 (!) distinct interpretations). Nevertheless, I believe R. W. Hoover cracked the nut in his unpublished 1968 Harvard Th.D. thesis on "The Term 'ΑΡΠΑΓΜΟΣ in Philippians 2.6." Hoover demonstrated that the expression is an idiom referring to taking advantage of or exploiting a given situation. Hence, in context, divine equality is not something to which Christ either determined not to grasp (res rapienda) or to retain in his grasp (res retinenda). Rather, it is something which Christ intrinsically had but failed to regard as something to use for his own advantage. The consequences of this stance are then elaborated by Paul in terms of a two-stage "emptying" process. First, by incarnation he "took the form of a slave" by "being born in the likeness of human beings." Second, "having been found in human form" (schēmati heuretheis hōs anthrōpos), he took the added step of humbling himself (etapeinōsen heauton) by becoming obedient to his commission to die (genomenos hypēkoos mechri thanatou)and not just any death, but the most humiliating death in the Roman arsenal, death on a cross (thanatou de staurou). This is the character of the God and Lord that Christians worship, not some distant, uncaring God comfortably living in the lap of luxurious entitlement!

Back in verse 6, the foundational statement of Christ's preexistent status is expressed in a circumstantial participial clause, en morphē theou hyparchōn, literally translated "being in the form of God." Circumstantial participles relate to the main verbs in a sentence in various adverbial ways, depending on the context. Traditionally, at least as far back as the classic 19th century commentary on Philippians by Joseph Barber Lightfoot, and represented by any number of contemporary translations (NIV, NRSV, NET Bible, ESV), the participle hyparchōn has been understood as concessive in sense. That is, even though Christ existed in the form of God, he didn't use that status as something to use for his own advantage. Such an interpretation makes good sense. But I wonder whether Charlie Moule, in a penetrating essay in the 1970 F. F. Bruce Festschrift, was on to something when he suggested that the participle should rather be understood in a causal sense. In Moule's understanding, it is precisely because Christ existed in the form of God that he did consider equality with God as consisting in snatching. In other words, Jesus' equality in nature and status with God makes his subsequent self-abasement entirely appropriate. God is as he has revealed himself to be in Christ, his incarnate Word.

This brings us inexorably to the cross itself. I often point to John Stott's most significant work, simply entitled The Cross of Christ. In my well-worn autographed copy of this book, one passage has stuck in my head and heart ever since I first read it in the summer of 1986:

I would never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross'. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from those thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He endured our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. [quoting P. T. Forsyth] 'The cross of Christ ... is God's only self-justification in such a world' as ours. (335-36)

That is genuine Christianity, not the triumphalist, imperial Christianities that have reared their ugly heads from the days of the Roman Empire in the 4th century to the days of the British and American Empires of the 19th to the 21st centuries. Imperial Christianity, with its picture of a warrior God and his victorious people, is turned upside down by the biblical portrait of the incarnate God-man who identifies with sinful humanity to the point of self-substitution in judgment for the sins of which they were the perpetrators. The God I believe in and worship is best understood via his human face, the incarnate Jesus of Nazareth. This is a God who is not aloof to humanity's pain and the hell we have brought upon ourselves. God forbid that I or any other putative follower of Christ ever let anyone imagine otherwise. Soli Deo Gloria!


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Pete Rose after 50 Years

"Charlie Hustle" in classic form
(photo@sportsillustrated.cnn.com)

13 April 1963. Major League Baseball was in reality what it still claims to be: America's National Pastime. Indeed, baseball was in its glory days. I would argue that the years between 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the sport's abhorrent color barrier, and 1969, when both leagues expanded to 12 teams and the divisional era commenced, were the apogee of the game. White stars like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Sandy Koufax were joined by African-American luminaries such as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, and Bob Gibson. Added to the mix was a rising tide of Latin American stars like Minnie Minoso, Luis Aparicio, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal. Never before or since has such an assemblage of talent played on the diamonds of America's great cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and (later) California. It was a time when America's best athletes were drawn more to baseball than they were to football and basketball. I have often wondered whether Mantle and Mays, for example, would have ended up as a running back (Mantle) and cornerback (Mays) instead of the two best centerfielders I ever saw had they been born in 1981 instead of 1931. No doubt they would have, and been immensely successful. I, however, am grateful that they didn't, and that I had the privilege of seeing each of them play the sport for which they were best suited.


Crosley Field, Cincinnati (photo@www.city-data.com)
But in the middle of that charmed era of change sprang an anomaly: a throwback player devoid of the speed of an Aparicio, the power of Mantle, or the all-around brilliance of Mays, a player who harked back to the bête noire of early 20th century baseball, the great Ty Cobb. I am speaking, of course, of Peter Edward Rose who, on this day 50 years ago, garnered the first of his record 4256 hits, an 8th inning triple off of Pirates' hurler Bob Friend in a lopsided 12-4 loss at old Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Rose, like Mays 12 years earlier, had failed to get a hit in his first 12 official at bats (though he did walk in his first plate appearance 5 days earlier, scoring on a home run by Frank Robinson). But once he got that first hit, there was no stopping him. In his first season, he accumulated 170 hits, hit .273, scored 101 runs, and was named the National League Rookie of the Year. 



My first Pete Rose baseball card,
the 1964 Topps
In his third season, 1965, Rose really hit his stride. That year he led the league with 209 hits, batted .312, scored 117 runs, made the first of his 17 All-Star appearances, and finished sixth in the voting for National League MVP. In his peak years of 1965-81, Rose hit over .300 15 times, had 200 or more hits 10 times, and scored more than 100 runs 9 times. He led the National League in hits 7 times, doubles 5 times, runs 4 times, and batting three times. Ten times he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, winning the award in 1973, a year in which he led the Big Red Machine to 99 wins and the NL West title by hitting .338. By the time he hung up his spikes in 1986 at the age of 45, Rose had amassed 4256 hits, scored 2165 runs, hit 746 doubles, and had a lifetime batting average of .303.

What set Rose entirely apart from his contemporaries, however, was the style of his play. He was certainly not a self-promoting "hot dog." Nor did he play with the panache of Mays or the simple elegance of Aaron. He was emphatically not "cool," as the flat top haircut he sported in the '60s attests. What he was was a hard-nosed player who played every minute of every game as if his whole life depended on it. My earliest recollection of Rose was his anomalous penchant for sprinting to first base when issued a base on balls (a "walk"). Indeed, such behavior led to the scornful nickname "Charlie Hustle," which Rose nevertheless bore as a badge of honor (according to Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford was the first to dub Rose thus when, on a long homer by Mantle in Spring Training 1963, Rose nonetheless sprinted to the wall and leaped as high as he could to catch the ball even when he had no chance in succeeding at his quest). 



Rose bowling over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game
(image@fromdeeprightfield.com)
The dark side of Charlie Hustle reared its ugly head on the night of 14 July 1970 at brand new Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. The occasion was the annual exhibition known as the All-Star Game, pitting the stars of the American and National Leagues against each other. With Rose on second and two outs in the bottom of the 12th inning, Jim Hickman singled to center. Rose, against his better judgment, streaked home. As the throw from center approached Fosse, Rose decided against his typical headfirst slide, instead lowering his shoulder and steamrolling youthful Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse as the ball sailed by, separating Fosse's shoulder in the process. Rose's "hustle" guaranteed the National League's 8th straight victory, but his overzealousness was widely criticized as unnecessary in view of the game's status as a mere exhibition. Nonetheless, Rose, as is his wont, remained unrepentant.

Rose's darkest days, however, wouldn't come until the years 1984-89, when he managed his hometown Reds. In 1989, after rumors had circulated for some time, Rose was questioned by Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and his successor Bart Giamotti about reports that he had bet on baseball, in particular games involving his own Reds team. After an investigation by attorney John Dowd uncovered incontrovertible evidence (despite Rose's persistent denials, which lasted all the way to 2004, when he finally admitted doing so) that Rose had gambled on dozens of Reds games during the years he managed the club. As a result, on 24 August 1989, Rose accepted a lifetime ban from the game he loved from Giamotti. And so he remains a baseball outcast to this day, denied the spot in the game's Hall of Fame he covets more than anything in the world. His story is a true Greek tragedy, his downfall precipitated by a fatal flaw of character that, when channeled properly, made him one of the greatest players ever to lace up spikes.



Rose saving the day in the 9th inning of Game 6
of the 1980 World Series in Philadelphia
(image@sports.yahoo.com)
I have a confession. Despite his obvious and multifarious character flaws, I love Pete Rose. And note that this confession comes from a Phillies fan of 50 years who absolutely hated Rose during his days with the Big Red Machine. The reason for my change of heart was the Phils' signing of Rose in 1979 for a then-record 4-year, $3.2 free agent contract. The Phils had won three consecutive division titles (winning 101 games in both 1976 and 1977), but had faltered each year in the playoffs (in 1976 to Rose's Reds). They had loads of star power, led by Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, but Schmidt in particular never seemed to be able to live up to the massive potential he so obviously had.  All this changed with the acquisition of Rose. Rose, for one, had the confidence in Schmitty that Mike lacked: "Mike Schmidt is the best player in the National League today. There's no question about that. He honestly doesn't realize how much ability he has. All he has to do is get the most out of those abilities on a daily basis because, believe me, he can play. He can do it all and he's just starting to want to more and more." The results were immediate: 45 homers in 1979, followed by MVP seasons in 1980-81 in which Schmidt developed into arguably the game's best player. More importantly, however, Rose brought legitimate swagger and confidence to the Phils, leading to the franchise's first World Series title in its then-97 year history. An indelible image etched into the memory of all Phillies fans alive at that time is that of Rose catching Frank White's foul pop in front of the team's dugout after normally sure-handed catcher Bob Boone had dropped it, securing the second out in the top of the ninth of the deciding 6th game at Veterans Stadium in South Philly on 21 October 1980. And never once did I ever see Rose dog it to first on a routine groundout, something I wish I could say about the current denizens of Pattison Avenue.

Does Rose belong in the Hall of Fame? I say yes. His boorishness, past sins, and often pathetic current demeanor must be acknowledged as a matter of public record. But, in my view, he has served his time. Moreover, the Hall is home to two players with convictions for drug offenses (Orlando Cepeda and Ferguson Jenkins). It is home to a pitcher who flagrantly defied the game's rules by throwing spitballs (Gaylord Perry). It is home to former commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis who, despite his key role in restoring baseball's integrity after the Black Sox scandal (see below), was an implacable racist who perpetuated the "gentleman's agreement" that kept African-American ballplayers from playing in the Major Leagues (his insistent "concern" for the Negro Leagues that would have been, and ultimately were, decimated by integration ring more than a little hollow in retrospect). Most significantly, it is home to Ty Cobb who, despite being one of the ten best players ever to play the game, was the meanest player of his era and hated even by his own teammates (not to mention a possible perpetrator of manslaughter). [an aside: the Pro Football Hall of Fame has not seen fit to remove O. J. Simpson from its ranks either]. 

The upshot: membership in the Hall of Fame should be based on a man's achievement and historical significance, not his suitability to serve as a societal role model. The explanation for Rose's predicament, of course, goes back almost a century, to the aforementioned "Black Sox scandal," when a number of players for the Chicago White Sox, including superstar Shoeless Joe Jackson, took money to throw games and lose the 1919 World Series to the Reds (for those interested, see Eliot Asinof's fine book, Eight Men Out, or, for those with shorter attention spans, the movie of the same name starring John Cusack). As a result, the game has been extremely sensitive to gambling, and rightly so. Nevertheless—and to me this is the key point—Rose never has been shown to have bet against the Reds (and who that ever saw him play seriously believes he did?). And if he did not, I see no definitive or compelling reason to keep him out, lack of genuine repentance notwithstanding.

One of the thrills of my life was traveling to Cooperstown, New York in July of 1995 to witness the Hall of Fame induction of Phillies legends Schmidt and Rich Ashburn. The field on which the ceremony took place was a veritable sea of upwards of 30,000 people clad in Phillies red, at the time a record-setting attendance for an induction ceremony. Schmidt, in his speech, mentioned that Rose was his grandmother's favorite player. Then, as he is prone to do, he made a controversial pronouncement: "I join her and millions of baseball fans in hoping someday soon, someday very soon, Pete Rose will be standing right here." Of course, the ocean of Phillies fans in attendance roared their approval. Here's to hoping that Michael Jack gets his wish.