Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.


Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

Posted: January 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

I’m going to end this series by looking specifically at the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Holy Scriptures. They are very different collections so I’m going to approach each in a separate post. The obvious place to begin is with what is often called the Old Testament. Now the Old Testament as a whole is an enormously complex topic and I obviously can’t even cover its development comprehensively in a single post. Instead, I’m just going to cover some of the things I find interesting and perhaps some of the things which seem to often be popularly misunderstood today.

First, the books of the Old Testament represent the accumulation of many centuries of oral tradition. There’s no indication and no reason to believe that any of it was produced in written form concurrent with the events described or near the start of that particular part of the oral tradition. The Torah was pretty clearly the first part of tradition transcribed in a written form. That does not appear to have happened at once, but by the time of the Kings of Israel, it does appear to be in a more or less settled state. Certainly it changed the least in the post-exilic period.

The Torah actually appears in places to incorporate somewhat different oral traditions. That’s why there are two creation narratives and why Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t necessarily line up perfectly. But as I’ve explored earlier in this series, such things simply didn’t create any tensions or problems in the ancient cultures in question. When we turn those facts into problems, we are anachronistically superimposing a modern, literate mindset on the ancient cultures. Personally, I try to avoid creating problems that didn’t and couldn’t have existed in the ancient world.

Ancient Israel was not text-centered. That’s another fact that seems to often be missed by people today. That’s not to say that texts (once they existed) were unimportant. At one point, for example, the scroll of Deuteronomy was recovered and its public reading marked a turning point for the people. But Israel was fundamentally Temple-centered. That’s a huge difference. You can see that emphasis shifting among some quadrants of Israel as we get closer to the first century CE, but it did not become universal until the shift to Rabbinic Judaism after the final destruction of the Temple and the failure of the last Messianic movement. The shift from Temple to Torah (or Tanakh) really belongs in the second century CE. Again, that’s not to say that the texts (and certainly the tradition behind them) were ever unimportant. It’s just that if you try to interpret and understand ancient Israel primarily or exclusively in, through, and around the text, you will miss the larger picture.

Moreover, as was pretty common across the ancient world, Israel was not particularly concerned about establishing a canon or keeping texts static. I think it’s Jeremiah, for instance, of which they’ve found four pretty different versions preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We also see other development in the texts. The Septuagint (LXX) was created from Hebrew texts because Hebrew was no longer spoken. It provided a Greek translation of the Torah initially and later other books as well. By the time of Christ, many writings were commonly associated with the LXX. However, the LXX was always something of a commentary on the Hebrew and so it changed as the Hebrew text changed and evolved. The book of Daniel provides a good example of that sort of evolution. The current Hebrew and Greek versions of Daniel track pretty closely. The Greek version still includes Bel and the Dragon and the song of the youths, but otherwise pretty much follows the Hebrew. But we’ve found an older Greek version of Daniel that is quite a bit different. It apparently tracked an older Hebrew form of the book that would have otherwise been lost to us.

The LXX is also significant for Christians. Although it was created for Jews before the time of Christ, Greek was the lingua franca of the Empire. That’s why all of the New Testament is in Greek. And since the Church very quickly went out to the nations, that is to what the Jews called the Gentiles, the Church used the LXX. We can see that in the NT text. In almost every place where there is a difference between the Greek and the Hebrew text of the OT quoted in the NT, even if it’s just a minor count of some sort, the NT quotation tracks the LXX. And that simply makes sense. If you’re going to preach to people who speak Greek (even if it’s not their native tongue) you’re going to use the Greek text. If even the Jews didn’t speak Hebrew anymore, the nations certainly couldn’t be expected to understand it.

Now some will go so far as to say that Protestants have the wrong Old Testament. But I find that statement still too centered on the text itself. You have to ask the wrong Old Testament for what? Now, it is true that the LXX text (or a translation of it such as the Latin Vulgate, the text in Russian, or any of the other translations as the Church spread to the nations) is the text read in Church and used in liturgy from the beginning of the Church until the Protestant Reformation. So in that particular instance, I think Protestants do have to provide an explanation for why they have changed the OT that Christians have always used in Church worship.

But the truth is that Christians have always been aware of the Hebrew texts and have used them for other purposes. Sometimes they opposed changes to the Hebrew text as the Masoretic Jewish canon was developed beginning in the second century CE. But across all centuries, some Christians have learned Hebrew and compared the texts. There’s relatively little variation, for instance, in the Torah itself. Moreover, Christians have always been aware that many of the books in the LXX are a translation from Hebrew (some of the later ones were originally written in Greek) and at places the Hebrew text makes more sense than the Greek text. Now the Greek text is still read in Church, but points often are drawn in recorded homilies and other Christian writings from both the Greek and the Hebrew forms of the text. Once again, variation in the text just wasn’t a problem in the ancient world for Christians.

Of course, there wasn’t a single version of the LXX any more than there was a single version of the Hebrew text in the first century. Again, that wasn’t seen as a problem in the ancient world. People used whichever version they had and with which they were familiar. That means some of the versions of the LXX used today by different traditions that were separated geographically and culturally aren’t exactly the same. The Latin Church (long before the schism) didn’t have as many books translated in the Vulgate as the Churches we now call “Eastern Orthodox” had in their OT. And in some places like Ethiopia and Egypt (again well before any schism) their versions of the LXX had more books included. Again, variations like that were not important in the ancient world. Although Marcion, who rejected the whole Old Testament, was soundly refuted by all, I don’t recall any council trying to nail down a precise OT canon. It just wasn’t an issue.

As a rule, if something didn’t bother ancient Christians over the course of centuries, I’m hard-pressed to find a reason it should bother me.

One interesting fact about the Protestant OT is that although it uses the books of the Masoretic canon, it mostly uses the LXX names for the books. For instance, the first book is “Genesis” rather than “In the Beginning.” That’s always struck me as curious. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was probably to maintain some connection and familiarity with the Holy Scriptures as Christians had learned them.

If you compare the LXX, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant OT with the Jewish canon, you will see that Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are each one book in the Jewish canon, but are two books each in any Christian Bible. (Samuel and Kings are 1 Kingdoms, 2 Kingdoms, 3 Kingdoms, and 4 Kingdoms in the LXX and 1, 2, 3, & 4 Kings in a Catholic Bible rather that 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings the way there titled in a Protestant Bible.) The reason for that difference are rather prosaic. In earlier posts, I mentioned that a scroll could only hold so much. I also mentioned that ancient Hebrew didn’t use vowels. Ancient Greek did include vowels. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were too long to put on a single scroll when they were translated from Hebrew to Greek. So they were each split into two scrolls. The Hebrew versions of each did fit on a single scroll so they weren’t divided.

At least, that what I’ve read. But it does make sense when you think about it.


Jesus Creed 27 – On the Mountain with Jesus

Posted: October 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 27 – On the Mountain with Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Luke 9:28-36.

Why is Jesus transfigured? He needs no experience for assurance in the face of his coming death. So why the transfiguration, complete with Moses (Torah) and Elijah (Prophets) speaking about his coming death?

Jesus is transfigured to reveal to Peter, John, and James life’s deepest mystery.

He is demonstrating what lies beyond that valley of suffering and death.

The Transfiguration is one of those moments when a full disclosure of life’s mystery bursts open, brushes up against us, and reminds us that ‘all is elsewhere.’

What we see in Jesus’ transfiguration is not so much his deity, but the glorification of his humanity — what all humans really and potentially are. C.S. Lewis calls this the ‘weight of glory.’ He reminds us in a long sentence:

‘It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.’

There (Lewis continues), consequently, ‘no ordinary people’ even if our fallen framework for life prohibits us from seeing humans for what they really are.

The Transfiguration is our hope.  As St. Athanasius wrote, “For He was made man that we might be made God.” But it’s also a warning. It is God’s will that we be conformed (and transformed) to the image of his Son. All too often, though, it is our will that we be conformed to the image of death — that we make ourselves into monsters.


Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Posted: September 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 4:16-30; 6:20-26.

Scot McKnight stakes out his ground right away in this chapter.

By virtue of entering the kingdom of God, we Christians make the astounding claim that we live under a different order — God’s order. Living in that order should make a difference in our day-to-day living and in our society. After all, the kingdom Jesus describes is a society and not just a personal nest.

Why else do we pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? If our faith has any meaning, then we are the enclave or manifestation of God’s kingdom here on earth. I think we need to do that for each other more often. It’s not all about the pleasant, the comfortable, the easy, or the personal. It’s about a whole lot more. Either we choose to live as citizens of the Kingdom or we do not. And we tend to waver between those poles. Sometimes we desire to so live. More often we do not. And that seems to be where our communion should enter the picture. Faith in isolation and without physical expression tends to fade. At least that’s my experience. I know the monastic hermits in their seclusion prayed for and were mystically connected with the whole world, but that’s a special calling, not something normative. Even the monastics mostly live in community. It’s not just that it’s helpful to have a ‘church family‘ (too bad we don’t really take that phrase seriously), there’s no other way for us to live. Sure, they’ll disappoint us, abandon us, hurt us, and all the rest. (Doesn’t your blood family do the same?) And yet, they and the Eucharist are God offered to our senses.  Where else can we turn?

Spiritual formation is not all contemplation and meditation, or Bible study groups and church gatherings. Spiritual formation, because it begins with the Jesus Creed, involves loving God and others. We need not choose one or the other; we need both, because loving others includes brushing up against the thorns of injustice in society. Love wants them removed.

Make no mistake. I love my country. I believe it is (on its good days) among the best the kingdoms of this world have ever offered. But it remains a kingdom of this world. We forget this reality to our peril. The Church is the one who must challenge the powers of this earth. Doesn’t Paul write about that?

Because the term ‘justice’ is used like this [in a retributive or vengeful manner] so often, it has acquired the sense of being negative and nasty. It seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment. But in Jesus’ kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution. Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that kingdom justice concerns restoring humans to both God and others.

In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes ‘making something right,’ and for something to be ‘right,’ there has to be a standard. For the Jewish world the standard is God’s will, the Torah, and so justice for Israel was ‘to make things right’ according to Scripture. In our American society what makes something ‘right’ is if it conforms to the United States Constitution or to a decision made in a court of law. Jesus operates in the Jewish world. What makes things ‘right’ for him? What is his standard? Here is where a Christian sense of justice parts company with standard social understandings.

The standard of justice for Jesus is the Jesus Creed. What is ‘right’ is determined by the twin exhortation to love God (by following Jesus) and to love others. For Jesus, justice is about restoring people and society to the love of God and love of others. The vision of restorative justice clobbers, with a padded stick of love, any retributive sense of justice. The follower of Jesus is to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice)’, but that ‘justice’ is defined by the Jesus Creed, not the Constitution. To get things right in our world, according to Jesus, is to love others and work for a system that expresses such love.

That’s a long quote, but I think this discussion required all of it. Now go read the parable of judgment day (sheep and goats) in Matthew. Think about it for a while. What distinguishes one who follows Jesus? Is it not ultimately a judgment of love? I think too many Christians confuse it as a judgment of ‘works‘ using a pretty anachronistic definition of the term. In a sense it is, but those works are works of love.

Not all of us are called to work in the justice system [of our society or kingdom of this world], but we are empowered to restore justice in our society. One person at a time; one change at a time; wherever we can.

That’s the closing thought of the chapter. And it’s a very fitting one.


Jesus Creed 13 – A Society of Transformation

Posted: September 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 13 – A Society of Transformation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Matthew 6:10, 11:28-30; Luke 17:20-21; Mark 3:31-35.

This section begins with the point that your goal shapes your journey. You have to know where you are going or you can get lost.  Jesus, too, knew where he was going, and he had a term for it — ‘kingdom of heaven’ (malekutha shamayim). This expression of Jesus provides a goal for his followers and, by living out that vision in heart, soul, mind, and strength, life is transformed.

Thus we should be a society of transformation. Are we, though? Scot has this interesting bit.

But what does he mean by ‘kingdom’? Ask a Christian ‘What did Jesus mean by ‘kingdom’?’ and you will get something like this: ‘heaven, eternity, life after death.’ Or, you might hear: ‘heaven on earth, the millenium, a perfect world, a paradise.’ (On my unscientific questionnaire, the responses are about fifty-fifty.)

His ‘unscientific’ poll strikes me as exactly right. That does seem to be how most people view the term. Scot has a lot in the book developing his thoughts, but the below captures part of his conclusion.

So, if ‘kingdom of God’ is so important to Jesus, what does it mean? I offer this thumbnail definition: the kingdom is the society in which the Jesus Creed transforms life. Three parts here: first, it is a society; second, the content shaping that society is the Jesus Creed; and third, the impact of the kingdom is that it transforms life.

A society is certainly one term, an entry point if you will, into the reality we call the church, but I don’t believe it captures its fullness. The church does break down all human divisions — it heals Babel. But I would call it less a society than a restoration of communion between human beings. I will say that where a larger society or culture shaped by the Jesus Creed exists, it transforms both those within and those who come in contact with it. If the society, whether labeled ‘Christian’ or not, is not shaped by the Jesus Creed its impact is negligible or even harmful. We have plenty of examples of both of those from history.

I will note that in my own journey toward Christianity, I was neither uncomfortable with what I believed (I wasn’t seeking something different), nor did I have an unsettled opinion of Christianity and Christians in general. Rather, it was the actions — the love — I saw and experienced from various Christians over time that led me initially to wonder if my judgment of Christianity had been premature and unfair.

Scot continues with this important insight.

It is important to understand that for Jesus the kingdom is about a society. Jesus did not come merely to enable specific individuals to develop a solo relationship with God, to run about on earth knowing that they, surrounded by a bunch of bunglers, were the only ones getting it right. No, he came to collect individuals into a big heap, set them in the middle of the world, and ask them to live out the Jesus Creed. If they live out that Jesus Creed, they will be personally transformed, and they also will transform the society around them.

Think about that. If it were all about individuals and God, there would have been no reason to amend the Shema, would there? It already covered that, didn’t it? Are we proclaiming and living the kingdom? Or are we returning to something like the focus of Israel under the Shema? That’s something to think about. I will, however, note that Jesus’ own language goes well beyond that of societal relationship. His language is that we be one with each other as he and the Father are one. That’s why I think a communion is a better word for the Kingdom than a society. But the point remains — this is not a faith for individuals. It’s not just about God and you.

The kingdom would be a society that is transforming life in the now, and that’s the extraordinary thing about Jesus. At the time of Jesus, it was not hard to find Jews pining for, pondering over, or planning for the kingdom. It was impossible to find one who believed that the long-anticipated kingdom was already present. Of all the radical claims Jesus made, this one stands the tallest: ‘The kingdom of God does not come visibly … because the kingdom of God is [right now and here] among you’ (author’s translation). Jesus’ saying- satchel is full of radical comments, but this tops ’em all. Jesus believes the kingdom of God is present. This can mean only one thing: he expects his followers to live in the kingdom in their daily lives — right now. Thus, a spiritually formed follower of Jesus lives the values of the kingdom now.

Do you agree? Or disagree? This is a central question, not a peripheral one. How you answer determines how you perceive the faith, Jesus, and everything surrounding it. Obviously, I see it much as Scot McKnight does. I get the sense that much of the church today does not. He does point out that Jesus says the kingdom begins by turning to him. So it is personal and relational. It begins by turning to him. But it doesn’t end there. “Kingdom transformation continues by following Jesus.” Scot has a lot more to say, but that captures it. Turning to Jesus is the start, but if you refuse to follow him, it doesn’t mean all that much. He talks a lot here about Jesus’ yoke as compared to the Torah-yoke and that’s a really good part of the chapter.

But it doesn’t even end there. The Kingdom transformation is only sustained by communion. Those fellow believers are the holiest objects presented to your senses. As flawed as they are, as often as they will fail you, they are the only thing that will sustain you in the faith. If you do not spend time with them, you’re in trouble. Pure and simple.

As a family they learn from Jesus about this new transforming: about boundary-breaking table fellowship, about forgiving one another, about financial responsibility for one another, and about equality within the family of God. What they learn most is the upside-down nature of the kingdom istself: instead of acting with power, his family serves one another. And, instead of living in self-absorption, his followers love one another. In other words, they live out the Jesus Creed as a society –and when they do, life is transformed.

Do we do that? Really?

The kingdom is the society in which the Jesus Creed transforms life.

In other words, that place where God’s will is done as it is heaven, even imperfectly.

Nothing else transforms life.


The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Posted: August 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat) (also Psalm 149).

As with Joseph, this chapter on Mary adds context to our reading of the story in the Holy Scriptures. McKnight finds in that story another theme. “Our vocation is to be what God made us to be.” Dwell on that for a minute. It’s not to be like Mother Theresa, or Daniel, or anyone else. “You are to be who God meant you to be.” If that’s not a tall order, I don’t know what is, especially for those of us who have almost buried what that might be.

Mary must instantaneously grasp that she will be labeled a na’ap (adulteress). But she also recognizes that God has something special in store. She is to be the mother of Messiah! And she responds immediately with a song of joy. However, in her song, McKnight sees evidence of more about Mary.

Joseph is a tsadiq, a man totally observant of the Torah. But Mary pokes her head out of a different nest, the Anawim (the pious poor). Historians agree on three characteristics of Mary’s people, the Anawim. These people suffer because they are poor, but they express their hope by gathering at the temple in Jerusalem. There they express to God their yearning for justice, for the end of oppression, and for the coming of the Messiah. Each of these characteristics of the Anawim finds expression in the life of Mary and especially in the Magnificat.

Mary is poor. At Jesus’ temple dedication his parents present two birds rather than a lamb. That is the offering prescribed in Torah for those too poor to afford a lamb. (Actually, if you dig into the history of first century Judaism, you’ll find that that’s not the only possible explanation. History, especially ancient history — where the data tends to be sparse, is often like that.) Mary is not hopeless though. Read the Magnificat and see the lines expressing a yearning for liberation from injustice.

Mary’s Song is actually announcing a social revolution. The King at the time is Herod the Great, and he is a power-tossing and death-dealing tyrant. Mary is announcing that he will be dealt his own due and have his power tossed to the winds. In his place, Mary declares, God will establish her very own son. Unlike Herod, he will rule with mercy and justice.

And then these very powerful words.

If spiritual formation is about learning to love God with our ‘all,’ then one dimension of loving God is surrendering the ‘all’ of our past to God. We dare not make light of our past — whether it was wondrous or abusive, reckless or righteous. All we can do, like Mary, is offer to the Lord who we are and what we’ve been. He accepts us — past and all.

Perhaps those words are less powerful for those who have a past that appears easy for God to accept. I don’t know. At the end of the day, I have only my own experience against which to judge. And I know more people with … difficult pasts than I do with wondrous ones.

Mary’s vocation, whether the ‘siblings‘ of Jesus were cousins, children of Joseph from an earlier marriage, children to whom Mary actually later gave birth (the latest developing and least likely idea — it’s an idea that’s actually only about two hundred years old), or some combination,  is clear. Mary assumes responsibility for these children, at least two girls and four boys besides Jesus. And since many scholars think Joseph died when Jesus was fairly young, that responsibility becomes even more significant.

McKnight points out that the names of the boys tell a story as well. Their names are the names of the patriarch Israel’s sons. Yakov, Yosef, Yehudah, and Shimeon. With Yeshua, they become five Jewish boys whose names tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery.

Mary’s vocation was also to teach the children. It should have been obvious, but I didn’t see the connection between the Magnificat and Jesus’ teachings until this book pointed it out. Duh. We often miss what’s right in front of our face. First, Mary blesses the holy name of God and asks him to fill the hungry. (Sound familiar?) Then, Mary is poor and from the Anawim. Jesus blesses and opens the banquet doors to the poor. Mary is a widow. Jesus frequently shows mercy to widows. (And his brother James speaks about taking care of widows and orphans in no uncertain terms at all.) Mary’s prayer emphasizes God’s mercy and compassion. What is Jesus known for? Mary’s own concern for Israel’s redemption is seen in Jesus’ wrenching prayer for Jerusalem. “These similarities are not accidents.

We modern Protestants tend to ignore Mary too much, I think.


The Jesus Creed 8 – Joseph: The Story of Reputation

Posted: August 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 8 – Joseph: The Story of Reputation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The one for this chapter is: Matthew 1:18-25.

This chapter adds depth to our understanding of the social and cultural context. Joseph is a ‘righteous man.’ That is, he is tsadiq.

This is the reputation of anyone who studies, learns, and observes the Torah scrupulously. In Joseph’s world, that means he recites and lives the Shema daily, that he follows the food laws, that he supports the synagogue, and that he regularly celebrates the high holy days in Jerusalem. Joseph is proud of his reputation. In Joseph’s world there are no reputations more desirable than tsadiq — unless you are a priest (unusual), a prophet (rare), or the Messiah (very rare).

I will note that this perception and understanding of Joseph lends credence to the Orthodox memory of Joseph as an older, widowed man chosen to wed Mary. I’m somewhat familiar with the way cultures who name such men function and it’s unlikely that a young man just entering adulthood would have been seen and recognized as tsadiq. I’m not sure that Joseph’s age matters all that much, but this cultural lens does bolster the Orthodox story of Joseph.

That provides the depth to understand Joseph’s dilemma when he hears that Mary is pregnant. If he continues his association with her, it will cost him his place among the tsadiqim. He will become Am ha-aretz, one of those who does not observe the Torah. So what does he do? He consults the Torah. Here are the options Torah would have given him.

She has either been seduced or raped. If she has been seduced, the Torah says that both Mary and her seducer are to be stoned to death. If she has been raped, the rapist is to be put to death. But, if no one confesses, the Torah says that Mary is to drink the ‘waters of bitterness.’ If she dies from the water, she is guilty; if she doesn’t die, she is innocent. Or, from yet another part of the Torah Joseph could have consulted, her parents could produce ‘tokens of virginity,’ which needs no explanation.

In the midst of this, Joseph hears Mary’s story. She says that she has not been seduced or raped, but that the child is the result of a miracle. God has done this.

Joseph is on the horns of a dilemma. He would do anything to follow Torah. But what if Mary is telling the truth? Would God do something like this? Should he preserve his reputation? Or love Mary and take her as his wife? This is the dilemma the Jesus Creed often creates.

With all that tension swirling, Joseph opts to quietly preserve his reputation with a ‘private‘ divorce. And then an angel tells him not to fear. Don’t fear the loss of reputation. Don’t fear the future. Mary is telling the truth. He knows it’s unlikely that anyone will believe his story of angelic visitation, so he must decide. Surrender to God (that sacred love thing, remember — ALL) and ruin his reputation in the public square or protect his reputation by ignoring God. We all know how Joseph chose. “He did as he was told.”

Joseph is then legally tied to two people with sullied reputations. “Mary is perceived as an adulteress (a na’ap) and Jesus is considered an illegitimate child (a mamzer). … Joseph is no longer a tsadiq. Instead, he is husband of Mary and the (legal) father of Jesus.”

His next thought is key. “The first story heard around the table of Jesus is that identity is more important than reputation. Joseph learns that who he is before God (his identity) is more important than who he is in the circle of his pious friends (his reputation).” And that’s a hard lesson for any of us to truly learn. Yet until we do, we can hardly be said to love God at all. For God chooses to lose his reputation when he provides for his Son to have two parents with bad reputations. And then he does it even more thoroughly in a scandalous and thoroughly disreputable death as a common criminal on a cross.

God asks us to sacrifice everything to find our identity in him. But it’s no less than he’s already done.


The Jesus Creed 6 – A Creed for Others

Posted: August 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Luke 10:25-37; Mark 12:28-34.

This chapter turns to the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate its central point. I liked this statement. “Jesus tells parables that catch his readers in the web of a moral dilemma so they can learn.” This parable starts because an “expert in the Torah” asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the Torah says, and the man responds with both love God and love others. He had already grasped part of the Jesus Creed.

But then he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” McKnight points out that he’s really asking ‘who is pure and who is not?’ What’s the classification system? Who is to be loved?

And in the parable, it’s important to realize that the priest and Levite followed the letter of the Torah. They were not supposed to come in contact with a dead body, not even allowing their shadow to fall over it, or they would become impure and unable to fulfill their duties. That’s why they went to the other side of the road. It was not out of heartlessness, but out of obedience to their understanding of Torah. However, it illustrates a great irony. By ‘obeying’ Torah, the priest and Levite  actually disobey what lies at the heart of Torah; loving others.

It’s the stereotyped outcast — the one who would have been considered an enemy — who actually does the right thing. Jesus’ answer to the potential conflict of ‘love-of-God-as-obeying-Torah’ versus ‘love-of-God-as-following-Jesus’ is clear: “Loving God properly always means that we will tend to those in need.”

Now Jesus is not against the Torah. Rather, he is against any reading of the Torah that does not encompass love God and love others. That is the spirit of Torah, however you interpret the letter of Torah. Jesus reshapes the question from ‘Who is my neighbor?’ to ‘To whom can you be neighborly?’ Don’t we all often fall on the wrong side of that distinction?  We tend to look down on the priest and the Levite, but are we really any different?

Neighborly love begins in our home. From the way some people act, this idea might be a shocker, but those in our family are also our neighbor. And it’s also a ‘whenever love and whereever love’. It’s not a question of whether or not the person “deserves” your love. As in our love for God, it’s only a sacred love for others if it is without qualifications.

“Neighborly love is moral love.” That’s an interesting statement. We are not called to ‘tolerance’. “Toleration condescends; love honors.” McKnight notes that in quoting Leviticus to establish his ‘love others’ addition to the Shema, Jesus is using its moral framework. Respect parents. Honor your word. Care for the physically challenged. Seek justice for the powerless. Live in sexual purity. Show love for your  enemies. And a whole lot more.


The Jesus Creed 5 – A Creed of Sacred Love

Posted: August 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 5 – A Creed of Sacred Love

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Matthew 6:9-15; Luke 7:36-50; 19:1-10.

Our love for God is sacred.

That’s the central theme of this chapter.  And sacredness flows from the word ‘all’ in the Shema and the first part of the Jesus Creed. It’s an all or nothing thing. A sacred love ‘sticks with what it is stuck with’. Isn’t that pretty much what Yahweh does? He has ‘stuck with’ humanity through the ages, working to heal and rescue us, loving us always.

Hosea is a primary example of this chapter. Hosea illustrated with his life that God was not just the God of Israel, but its Lover as well. McKnight calls this Hosea’s ‘open secret’. God is the Lover of Israel. And that leads him to Jesus’ ‘open secret’. God is an Abba Lover. God loves and is to be loved as a human loves his or her own father (or at least how a father ought to be loved and worthy of love).

McKnight then moves into how such a sacred love transforms our speech, our acts, and our worship. In our speech, we cannot help but speak of God with reserve. We do not wish to carelessly violate that sacred love. Since sinful acts are any that violate our love of God and others, sacred love converts acts of sin to acts of love. (He uses Zacchaeus for the example here.) And finally, it transforms our worship. And here he uses the example of the courtesan who, while Jesus is with a Torah-observant host, enters, falls at Jesus’ feet weeping and pours expensive oil on his feet.

His closing is beautiful.

I can think of no better illustration of what genuine Christian worship is all about: Worship happens when I comprehend (1) who I really am before God — a love-violating sinner, (2) how faithful and gracious God is to his sacred commitment of love for me, and (3) how incredibly good God is to open the floodgates of that love to me.

When I comprehend this, I anoint his feet with oil and wipe dry his feet of grace.

Does that describe the depth and tenor of our worship?


The Jesus Creed 4 – The Jesus Creed as a Table

Posted: August 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Matthew 11:16-19; Mark 2:14-17; Luke 19:1-10.

Tables create societies.

That’s the provocative sentence which opens this chapter. Reflect on the statement. Read the gospel readings. (Those are three of my long-time favorites, but we don’t seem to talk about them very often.) Consider sociological contexts. Consider your own experience. Scot McKnight continues with an amusing example, but we should have little problem coming up with many of our own. There is something about the way we gather together in so many ways to eat and drink. Something light … and something darker.

Tables can create societies; they can also divide societies.

There is something intimate about sharing a table. We may have masked some of that in our American culture (though it’s not hard to see glimpses if you look), but other cultures still clearly expose that reality in their approach to the question of who could eat at the table and how the meal is conducted.

Jesus used his table to create an inclusive society. And it was a society his contemparies understood as dangerous. In his culture, table customs were often used to measure Torah commitment. And they denounced Jesus. ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard.’ The accusation is more than it first appears. It is a precise quotation of an ancient Israelite law book … and it is pinned to Jesus’ lapel because of his table customs.

Tables don’t become walls strictly through meanness or evil intent (though the laws/customs of segregation certainly contained both). The Pharisees cared so much about those with whom they ate, making their table into a very high wall indeed, because “they were zealous in their commitment to how they thought the Torah should be applied.” It was a wall between the observant and the non-observant, sometimes even the accidentally non-observant. They would often refuse to eat or drink with anyone but other Pharisees.

But for Jesus the table was to be a place of fellowship and inclusion and acceptance… Jesus’ attitude gave him a bad name. For his custom of including all at the table, Jesus was called a ‘glutton and drunkard.’ This expression points to a legal charge against Jesus. The accusers of Jesus use the specific language from a passage regulating how parents are to make legal charges against a rebellious son. Parents are to take the son to the elders and say, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then they are to stone the rebellious son to death in order to purge evil from the community. Yikes!

Yikes, indeed! Of course, I was already familiar with the law in question. It’s in that largish category of Old Testament things I don’t understand and have difficulty reconciling, but mostly don’t much worry about. I do know it’s abused still today as an excuse to cast kids out (perhaps not actually stoning them, but not dissimilar in some ways). But that does provide a certain gravitas to the charge, one that is otherwise completely lacking in our cultural context. It’s only as I have been increasingly able to better understand the table in Jewish society (and lots of sources have helped me in that regard), that I’ve been able to understand the depth and intensity of these exchanges. And reflections on this law help me better understand the father in the prodigal son. Given the treatment of sons like the prodigal, it’s likely the father’s urgent concern for his son and need to reach him before anyone else in the community that has him racing down the road to him in a manner most unbefitting his station. As a prodigal of sorts I’m grateful that was the Father’s reaction to me. As a father myself, that’s the response I deeply understand. It matters little what my children do. I would never be able to stone them.

We can now put together our first few chapters. Jesus teaches that the center of life before God is the Jesus Creed. When the Jesus Creed turns into prayer, it becomes the Lord’s Prayer; when it becomes a story, it becomes the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And when it becomes a society, it becomes the table of welcome around Jesus.

Hmmm. If that’s the measure of the society created around Jesus, how well do our churches hold up. Sometimes pretty good, but much of the time? I think less so.

The observant person’s table story: You can eat with me if you are clean. If you are unclean, take a bath and come back tomorrow evening. Jesus’ table story: clean or unclean, you can eat with me, and I will make you clean. Instead of his table requiring purity, his table creates purity. Jesus chooses the table to be a place of grace. When the table becomes a place of grace, it begins to act. What does it do? It heals, it envisions, and it hopes.

At his table, or by bringing them to his table, Jesus heals those who are spiritually or socially sick. He restores people to society. The table also envisions. “Jesus table fellowship actually creates a new vision of what Israel means and is to become. … ‘Israel’ now refers to those who love God by following Jesus. ‘Israel’ describes those who are spiritually attached to Jesus.” At the demonstrable, physical level, what our churches saying?

And finally, McKnight explores how the table hopes or anticipates the Age to Come. “sharing table with Jesus is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God for each of us.”