No Stream without a Source

Part I

A few days ago, an email brought to my attention a review of a new book by Emory OT professor Brent Strawn (The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment [Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017]). Strawn concludes from surveys of biblical knowledge, statistics concerning sermon texts, the structure of the lectionary, and anecdotal evidence, for example, that contemporary Christianity neglects the Old Testament and that this neglect threatens the health of the church. Although I have not conducted systematic, scientific research on the specific question and have not yet read Strawn’s book, my three decades of experience in the college and seminary classroom and observations made from the pew lead me to agree with Strawn’s thesis. Obviously, this two-part blog entry will not be a review of the book (see, however, http://religionnews.com/2017/05/18/is-the-old-testament-dying/). Instead, I will offer my reflections on the phenomenon, itself: this week its causes and next week its dangers.

Causes.  For thirty years, my students have consistently come to OT introduction courses predisposed to consider the OT inferior to the NT, if not altogether superseded and dispensable.  To begin, the names “Old” and “New” themselves suggest that the “New” has replaced the “Old.” Misperceptions bred of unfamiliarity abound, especially false dichotomies that contrast the supposed character of the contents of the OT with that of the NT, as though there were no continuity whatsoever between Israel and the Church.

  • The OT is a book of “law” and the NT of “grace,” for example. Yet, God chose Abraham, and through him, Israel, as an act of pure grace, BEFORE the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. God delivered Israel from Egypt because God remembered the PROMISE made to Abraham.  Israel did obey the law in order to BECOME God’s people, but because they already WERE God’s people.  Conversely, Jesus insists in the NT that he did not come to destroy the law, but to give it full expression (Matt 5:17).
  • Relatedly, the OT requires “works” for salvation while the NT calls for “faith.” Yet, Martin Luther came to his understanding of salvation by faith while lecturing on the book of Psalms and the NT author, James, expressed succinctly the necessity of avoiding such false dichotomies when he wrote that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).
  • The God of the OT is wrathful while the Father of Jesus Christ is love itself. Yet, the love implied in this dichotomy is sentimental and saccharine. Anger at injustice or misbehavior demonstrates the very purpose of anger. To illustrate by way of analogy, a parent’s anger over children’s misdeeds is entirely compatible with parental love; indeed, it arises from and expresses parental love. Parents who tolerate misbehavior without correcting it fail their children. “When Israel was a child, I loved him…The more I called them, the more they went from me…I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love … How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger….” (Hos 11:1-9 RSV)

In addition to these misperceptions concerning the nature and character of the Old Testament, a number of social phenomenon contribute to the turn away from it.  Several observers of contemporary culture have called attention to the revolution in how people consume information currently underway. People increasingly prefer digital forms to the printed word. The web page serves as the ideal format:  graphically intense, ideas in bullet points, interactive, easily and quickly scanned.  Summary and simplicity carry greater weight that sustained argumentation and nuance. This preference for discrete bits of information manifests itself in the attraction to “bumper sticker theology” and the apparent mistrust for nuanced and sophisticated reflection on the sources of Christian belief and significance of Christian faith. Furthermore, in this age of information explosion, technological advance, and cultural change, many regard “old” as the equivalent of “irrelevant.”  What can the Old Testament, which reflects a patriarchal, agrarian, pre-technological world, possibly offer the twenty-first century?  Such attitudes undervalue ancient wisdom.  Modes of transportation may have changed drastically, but, whether on camels or in the driver’s seat, human beings still have the same hopes and fears, loves and hatreds.

Finally, it seems to me, at least, that a fundamental shift in the nature of Christianity may be in process, a shift toward a faith that would not need the Old Testament.  Three attitudes, in particular, manifest or motivate this evolution.  First, contemporary Christianity often assumes a form of piety/spirituality that exhibits significant affinity with Gnosticism. It regards Christian faith as an almost exclusively subjective matter – a personal experience. One lives one’s faith in one’s heart, not in the world.  This personal Christianity severs faith from any context in the created order. Second, and related, is the a-historical individualism that leads people to conclude that a believer can live a life of faith in isolation from a community of fellow-believers and from the tradition of faith that came before.  How can one follow Jesus Christ, truly and authentically, without maintaining contact with the apostolic tradition recorded in scripture?  What prevents private Christianity from evolving into something that Jesus would not have been able to endorse?  If individuals create their own versions of Christianity, Christianity becomes virtually polytheistic, venerating as many “Christs” as there are “Christians.” The insistence on unity of reality that constitutes a vital element of monotheism (“Hear O Israel, YHWH our God is one…” Deut 6:4) evaporates. Third, this “Christianity in isolation” reinforces the notions that the “old” has been replaced, that the “old” is irrelevant, and that the “old” is other.  It severs Christian faith from its roots.

There can be no stream without a source.

To An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Luke’s record of the Apostle Paul’s foray into the philosophy of religion/apologetics (Acts 17:22-31) portrays an approach to evangelism that differed significantly from Paul’s typical practice. Earlier in the chapter, Luke recounts Paul’s visits to the synagogue in Thessalonica, where “as he was accustomed,” Paul argued for faith in Christ based on his interpretation of the (Old Testament) scriptures. Similarly, when forced to flee Thessalonica, Paul and his entourage went to Beroea where Paul again taught in the synagogue.  Because Paul’s Thessalonican opponents sent reports to Beroea, Paul had to flee again, now to Athens, the center of Greek learning and religion. Paul, concerned by the rampant idolatry in the city, began speaking, not just in the synagogues, but also in the open marketplace. Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who heard Paul there dragged him to the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”) an informal forum for philosophical debate, demanding that he give account of himself and his doctrine.

In this setting, Paul could not appeal to Hebrew Scriptures as an authority.  Greek philosophers would not have recognized it as such. Paul’s rhetorical strategy, as Luke records it, relied, rather, on appeals to the created order, Greek philosophy itself (Acts 17:28, a quotation of the Stoic Aratus), the fundamental unity of humankind, and the logical inconsistencies of polytheism and idolatry.  Like Abraham before him (cf. Gen 14, where Abraham identifies Melchizedek’s “Supreme God” by the proper name of Israel’s God), Paul exploited as his point of entry the possibilities inherent in the Athenian cultic object dedicated to the “unknown god.” Apparently, the Athenians were, as Paul observed, extremely religious, so religious, in fact that they did not want to risk offending some god of whom they had not yet heard.  Therefore, they erected a “wild-card” altar where they could appease any god who might feel neglected.  Incidentally, according to Luke’s account, Paul’s rhetoric produced only limited results.

Paul’s decision to invoke the altar to “the unknown god” raises interesting questions for me. Ironically, because early Christians practiced an austere religion (with little pomp, and no hierarchy – at first), because they permitted no physical representations of God, and especially because, as a variety of Judaism, they insisted that there is only one God, their pagan neighbors often characterized them as atheists.  Logically, after all, the trend from belief in many gods to belief in only one god ultimately extrapolates to belief in no god at all.

Two thousand years after Paul, many seem to have made such a transition.  I read and hear daily about those who are “spiritual but not religious” or those who are religious, but amorphously so, the “nones.” These varieties of unspecific spirituality seem at least akin to venerating an unknown, and presumably unknowable, god if for no other reason than just to be on the safe side.  Of course, the mistrust of “organized religion” that underlies these sentiments is justifiable in many respects. Clergy sexual abuse, the identification of the interests of the church (the same statements could be made of synagogues, mosques, etc., perhaps, but I write as a Christian) with partisan politics, the selfish focus of many churches evidenced by their budgets, and the apparent determination of many churches to contribute to the continued marginalization of the marginalized, to name but the most prominent phenomena, merit criticism and mistrust.

Amorphous spirituality also embodies a number of the less-noble characteristics of the times, however.  Because it adheres to no doctrine and does not involve membership in any community, it perfectly suits the hyper-individualism that infuses contemporary culture.  Similarly, it asks for no ethical commitment, embodies no values, and defines no ultimate good.  It asks nothing of its “adherents.” It is believing without having anything to believe.

In fact, it may be more accurate to say that we have entered an era in which believing in, committing to anything beyond ourselves is difficult.  Based on the evidence of public attitudes toward climate change science or toward data on immigration trends (legal and illegal), for significant segments of the population, individual opinion “trumps” any coherent worldview.  Levels of trust in practically all of our institutions, public and private, register at historic lows.  We do not trust any of the branches of government, the political parties, public education, science, marriage, the church, or one another.  Apparently, many of us feel that we can only trust ourselves. Loyalties and values reflect self-interests.  Increasingly, these self-interests, writ large as national interests, mask greed and intolerance behind the “public” (read majority) good.  The nation becomes the ego usurping God.

Which brings us back to Paul at the Aeropagus. The monotheistic critique of polytheism hinges on the unity of reality, as Paul argued.  Who settles the argument when two gods both claim authority over the weather? The cosmos did not originate from many wills, monotheists contend. Human beings all need the same food, water, love, and meaning. A harmonious order underlies all of reality.

Admittedly, I am a Christian believer, a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Yet, I cannot fathom what spirituality without religion can mean other than amorphous self-worship and desperate self-reliance. Whether because God created us for relationship with God and one another (as I am convinced) or because human beings have evolved as creatures who need transcendent meaning, selfishness does not and cannot sustain healthy personhood and community.  Devotion to me and mine above all else can only lead to chaos and conflict.

Paul concluded his presentation to the philosophers by calling them to faith in the Resurrected One, God’s announcement to the world and individuals in it that the world is not fundamentally chaotic, that we need not rely on ourselves as the source of meaning and purpose for our own lives. Could it be that this era of mistrust and unbelief, of egocentrism and self-reliance hungers for this message, too? Can the church, repentant of its errors, model life lived in response to the one God who authored all that is, including the one humanity to which we all belong? I believe so.

Wise Expenditure of Energy

“A fool expends all his [sic] energy,                                                                                                               but a wise person keeps it in reserve” (Prov 29:11, my trans.)

In January a few years ago, a colleague and I attended a conference in the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida.  We had made our flight arrangements separately, but ended up booked for the same return flight. I reached the airport first and went to the kiosk to print out my boarding pass. The kiosk computer informed me that I needed to consult a ticket Continue reading Wise Expenditure of Energy

Seeing Only What We Expect to See

Luke 24:13-35

According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel reading for this Sunday, April 30, 2017, is the story of the encounter between two of Jesus’ disciples and the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, some seven miles outside Jerusalem. Only Luke tells this story, suggesting that he gathered it along with other information during his own research (cf. Continue reading Seeing Only What We Expect to See

“Whispering Hope”

Heb 11:1

One day early in my teaching career, I was laboring to help students in a small seminar on hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) to understand the logical and grammatical structure of a passage in Paul. As is often the case in Paul’s letters, the issue involved a simple “therefore,” by which Paul argued for the connection between what Christians Continue reading “Whispering Hope”

Dry Bones

Ezek 37:1-14

Many know the Old Testament lectionary reading for this coming Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent, through the familiar spiritual. Slaves in the American Sought clearly heard in Ezekiel and his visions of a wheel and a valley of dry bones a promise of God’s power to bring life out of death, freedom out of slavery. The passage finds its place in the common Continue reading Dry Bones

An Appeal to Young Christians and a Prayer

Sometimes multiple needs coincide to offer solutions to one another. I suggest that the contemporary church faces just such a confluence of opportunities masquerading as problems.  The church needs help; resources are available. Continue reading An Appeal to Young Christians and a Prayer

Spring Break

I will be taking a break from blogging for a couple of weeks to tend to some pressing professional and personal concerns.  Look for something new the week of March 20.

Until then, keep following Jesus.

Mere Christianity

Lately, I have read about and heard directly from pastors who have been accused of being political from the pulpit although they thought that they were simply preaching the Gospel. We live in a time when people on both sides of the political spectrum stand ready to take offense. Continue reading Mere Christianity

America First or Not my Problem

Mark 9:37

For a couple of weeks now, I have been preoccupied with the perception that the public discourse influences even believers toward stridency, rigidity, and lack of compassion. Oddly, at the same time, I have been hearing again and again in my mind’s ear the lyrics of a children’s hymn I learned to sing in Vacation Bible School:  “Jesus loves the little Continue reading America First or Not my Problem