2006-04-27

On Tolerance, Scripture, Historicity, and Truth

A friend wrote this to me tonight:

Great program on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air segment on NPR today.  The guest was Bart Urman (sp?), author of Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, the early followers of Jesus and New Testament and Gnostic Gospels historian and authority at University of North Carolina.  He spoke a lot about The Da Vince Code as well as the Gospel of Judas and other relatively recently discovered Christian writings... At the very end of the program he had a great couple of statements about the importance of today’s Christian realizing the diversity that even the early Christian church exemplified.  He sounded mightily Episcopalian, though I’m wary of religious academics tenured at state universities.  

Thanks!  Actually, I heard 5 minutes of it while going to Sr Hi Bible Study tonight, and one of the students also heard it.  He brought it up at Bible Study.  So, we talked about aspects of it tonight.  Must've been something God wanted me to be aware of and talk about!  I also heard the tolerance message at the end of it as well... And it brings me to a subject I have been wanting to write about for a while, so I am going to write about it if you don’t mind ;-)

My feelings about the tolerance part is paradoxical. I have just enough conservative Evangelical in me (as well as open-minded liberal), that I am both wary of, and sympathetic to, such calls for tolerance. Going to a liberal mainline seminary has taught me that for many future pastors and academics the core of Christianity is not Christ and his work, but a politically correct tolerance of anyone, as long as they have no firm opinions on anything. As soon as someone has firm opinions and is willing to identify something as "right" and something as "wrong", they are labeled as a "fundy" and excluded from "polite" conversation.  In such a climate a theological conservative has to know the presuppositions and arguments better than anyone else to even get a hearing.

Now, I have been on the other side as well. In the camp of the modern-day Pharisees who have everything in Christianity so hyper-defined that if one does not "tow the party line" on everything from sexual ethics to political affiliation to the exact nature of Christ's second coming, then you are labeled as a damned liberal and a pagan in Christian clothes.

Both positions are absurd- and truth be known- both are heretical fundamentalisms in their own right. They are both utterly intolerant to anyone who does not "tow the party line" (and if there is one positive thing about Bible-thumpers- at least they are honest about their intolerance). So, after four years of mainline liberal seminary, when I hear a tolerance message like the one at the end of the interview, I am just jaded enough to hear:

"Since the early Church had a plurality of voices and confusion about who Jesus was, then so should we. After all, the assured results of "objective historical criticism" of the Bible tells us there probably was no real Jesus to speak of. Just a misunderstood prophet that was transformed into a risen Savior by second and third generation followers who really had no idea who he was, and who forged canonical Gospels bearing the names of legendary disciples to prove their points.  And those followers were real meanies: they used the power of their positions in Church to squeeze out dissenting voices and enforce an intolerant orthodoxy. We would all be happier if we could go back to the early days and believe anything we wanted about Jesus without anyone telling us we are wrong. After all, truth is relative to each person, and there is no such thing as absolute truth."

I know that is jaded and unfair, especially since I only heard 5 minutes of it, but after it is crammed down your throat all the time you come to expect it, and either (a) accept it uncritically, or (b) criticize it at every step. As far as Truth goes, the "right" would assert that Truth is absolute, and absolutely knowable. The "left" would assert that Truth is relative, and there is no such thing as having a firm grasp on "the Truth". I think both sides have valid concerns, and I would say that Truth is absolute, but is known relative to the vantage point of the person observing the Truth. We can have a firm grasp of THE Truth, but must realize that we can see that Truth from multiple perspectives.

As a result, and through a consideration of the actual facts surrounding the composition of the New Testament and the Archaeological support for it, I believe that the canonical Gospels are not only our best source for understanding Christ, but also substantially factually reliable. Furthermore, I think that the most plausible explanation for their authorship is that they were written by eye-witnesses, or someone recording eye-witness preaching (even the Gospel of John). I think that, with some exceptions, the early Church Fathers and Mothers had access to traditions, documents, and evidence we no longer have access to, and that it is much more plausible that they were right about who wrote the N.T. and when.  It makes more sense than to believe that German, French, British, or American scholars are right, who were raised in Post-Enlightenment culture that largely denies miracles and the possibility of revelation, living 1800-2000 years after the events, not speaking the language or living in the culture of the early Church, and not having access to the source the Early Church had.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I am also very wary of conservatives who believe the Bible is flawless and completely without error in theology, history, and science.  This turns the Bible into a book of trivia one can use to avoid learning from science and history. It makes people read the Bible to "prove" or "disprove" it, rather than to read it to learn how to know, love, and follow Jesus by the power of His Spirit. For example, the Gospels disagree on whether or not Jesus allowed his disciples to carry a staff with them on their preaching mission (cf. Matthew 10:10; Mark 6:8; Luke 9:3). Conservatives do verbal and logical gymnastics to try and "prove" that the Bible is not contradicting itself here (which it is). Liberals take passages like this and say things like: "Since the Bible is not reliable in the details, it is just a book written by humans and is thus as fallible as anyone's thinking about God and Christ. Our 'reconstructed' modern Jesus is just as true as the Jesus of the early Church, and possibly moreso, because we are 'enlightened' and 'modern'!"

Both seem to miss the point entirely. In the case of this one passage, the central meaning is that Jesus sends out the disciples (and by logical extension, us) with nothing to rely on except Him. It is at the level of meaning that God speaks to us in Scripture, even through its outward blemishes, just as God speaks to us through Jesus despite his outward blemishes.  Just as it would be silly to not listen to Jesus because he may have had crooked teeth, blemishes, or messed up hair, so it is silly to deny that God speaks through Scripture just because it has discrepancies in the details. Likewise, just as it would be absurd to assume that in order for Jesus to be God Incarnate, he had to have perfect teeth, hair, and skin, it is also absurd to assume that the Bible has to be factually inerrant to accurately convey the meaning, purpose and plan behind God revealing Godself to us in Christ.

This is not to say that meaning and purpose are not tied in some ways to whether or not the events actually happened the way Scripture says they did.  Some lessons are tied to whether or not they actually happened in real history, and some are not. For instance, the meaning of the Proverbs are not tied at all to actual history because of their literary genre. The Story of Jonah can teach us the same lesson (God loves all, wants us to reach out to all, and will badger us until we do it) whether or not Jonah actually lived, or if it was an inventive short story developed by Jews in Exile. On the other hand, in order for the meaning of the Exodus to be valid, it would depend on whether or not God really did lead the Jews out of Egypt. Now, the actual way the events played out may not have to be exactly like the Biblical account, but there would have had to be a historical exodus of some kind.

Likewise, the stories of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon convey meanings because they are based on real historical figures. They need to have really existed, and really done something like what the Biblical story says, in order to be meaningful. Yet, it does not matter whether or not the Biblical stories are more like newspaper reports (which they probably aren't), or more like historically-based fiction such as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (which they probably are). The same meanings and life-lessons are true whether or not these stories are literally true, or "amped up" by a dramatic re-telling.

And, when the factual accuracy of a historical event is crucial to its meaning, the Bible is very explicit about it by giving lists of historical conditions and eye-witnesses.  This occurs in the Gospels.  There are witness names, place names, and historical markers all over the place. Particularly, the historicity of Christ's physical resurrection is stressed and testified to (see the end of Matthew, Luke, John, and 1Corinthians 15). Now, it may not matter to the meaning whether or not Jesus said "take a staff" or "take no staff" when he sent out his disciples (see above), but it does matter intensely whether or not the resurrection is factually true. If it isn't "our preaching is in vain and so is your faith"! (see 1Co 15). The point is, when historicity is essential to the point of the story, the Bible makes it explicit. But, most of the time, the truth and meaning of the Bible is only loosely tied to historical accuracy.

To bring this full circle: I believe that we should be tolerant about different perspectives on Truth, but not about different truths. There is a historical person of Jesus who is the Christ of faith, and the canonical New Testament shows us what he was (and is) really about. These books really, historically, have an overwhelming probability of being written by those who actually knew Jesus. Other gospels that were not accepted by the early Church were denied for good reason. They had an overwhelming probability of being written by people who were fakes and who never really knew Jesus, and they usually proclaim a completely "different Jesus" (which St. Paul warned us about: 2Co 11:4). This is definitely the case with the "Gospel of Judas", which I have read and researched.

There is one reality, one Truth, of Jesus Christ. Matthew gives us his perspective on him, and Mark his perspective.  Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and the other NT writers give their perspectives on this same Jesus. And yet, their portraits can be harmonized, like how percussion, strings, and winds can be harmonized to play the same symphony. But, most of the "revisionist" portraits of Jesus found in non-canonical "gospels" are simply playing a different piece of music altogether. I have read many of them. There can be no harmony there because there is no centrally agreed-on Jesus.

At some stage I think that if tolerance is going to become love, it has to be honest about issues of truth. It has to stand up and say: "I am tolerant of your views, and enjoy dialogue, but what you are saying is simply a non-Christian option. We are not talking about the same Jesus, or the same religion. I will happily speak to you about it, but I will not pretend this is a conversation between Christians, just so I don’t hurt anyone's feelings. This is a conversation between a Christian and someone who is not."

The same Divinely Inspired Book that says "love your neighbor as yourself", also says "do not bear false witness". The "left" emphasizes the former to the exclusion of the latter in a pretended "tolerance". The "right" emphasizes the latter at the expense of the former in a very real intolerance. I think a good followers of Christ (and good Anglicans) we have to emphasize both without loosing either. Go via media!

2006-04-19

Can we pray for the past?

I got a great question from one of my students named Meg.  I thought I would throw it out for consideration and debate:

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If God is part of a separate time where he is both the past present and future all at the same time, why is it that we only pray for two of those time frames the present and the future? Is it possible to alter the past by praying for a past occurrence? I'm not talking about praying to learn from one's mistakes so as to not continue to do it in the future but actually praying for something to change in the past and actually receiving your prayer?
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Meg,

Actually, this is really easy to answer:

1. Yes, God is outside of time, and all time is present tense for him.  Thus, this does open the possibility for the type of prayer you speak of.  And, as far as I know, there is no Scriptural basis for dealing with this question, so we are on our own, left to our own reason.  The Bible implies that it is always best to pray for things in the future, because future and present-tense prayers are the only prayers we find there (and in Church history for that matter).

2. Yet, neither the Bible, nor Tradition, nor Reason, forbid us to pray for the past. Indeed, Paul makes one passing reference to the Corinthians "baptizing for the dead" (1Co 15). We do not know what this exactly means, but one interpretation was that they were being baptized as "stand ins" for those who had died.  Mormons practice this. Orthodox Christians have always insisted that one is only baptized for one's self.  But, it does open the door to the idea that some in the early Church were wondering the same thing.

3. As for the nature of God, God does not contradict Godself. God cannot do things against his own nature, and be non-God. This transfers to our universe as well. Logic and math dominate the ordering of the universe (without excluding free-will).  But it does mean that nothing in creation can create black whiteness, or square circles, or an unmovable moving object.

4. Thus, like God, nothing in creation can be and not be in the same way at the same time.  Make sense so far?  OK... here is how it relates:

5. If you have definite knowledge that a certain event has happened in a certain way, it is a logically-closed event for you to pray for.  It cannot be other than it is. The prayer for these types of events IS to pray to learn from them.  In fact, learning from you past is a way of praying meaning back into a past event that was not there in the first place.  The learning that results from the event actually makes the event a different event: because now it is an event with meaning.

6. However, if you have no definite knowledge of what happened in the past, I find NO REASON not to pray for it!!! As long as you do not know, it is not a logically closed event for you... and maybe God has heard your future prayer and answered in the past, and you will find that out in the present.  I will admit, I have prayed prayers like this before, and will do so in the future.  However, with that said, I think it is a far better use of our time to pray PRO-actively (before the event) rather than RE-actively (after the event).

7. If your question has roots in your worry over whether or not someone was "saved" before death... then YES pray for them!  You never know what God might do, and what you might find out when you go into God's presence. However, do not spend so much time in the past that you are not interceding for those alive right here, right now.

That's my answer.  Hope it helps.

May Christ fill your life,
Nate

2006-04-11

Students Standing Strong for Plastic Trendy Jesus?

This is one of those posts where I know people are going to hate me, but if I am going to be true to the Church I minister in, the students I serve, and the Bible-belt culture I live in, I have to write it.

I was watching the news tonight and they were talking about a Christian student group at Colleyville-Heritage High School "fighting for their right" to worship after school at Colleyville High School. This group "Students Standing Strong" apparently brought in the strong arm of the lawyers to get the school to allow them to worship in the gymnasium.

The way it is being reported on Fox 4 news, I get real mixed feelings about it... but they could be presenting it in a bad light (news often does). But, since I am a youth minister about 15 miles away from this school, I thought I might ask one of my students in that school district what they knew of the group.

I asked this person: What do you know about this group?  Is it a good thing?  What are your feelings about it all?  Honesty is appreciated...

Here is what they wrote back (their words, not mine, but names and genders are deleted):

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Dear Nate,

Students Standing Strong is a Christian club for our two high schools in our district. Our high school won't allow SSS to be held with in our school, [but] the other high school Grapevine will. I'm not sure why our school won't host it, but I do know that our Principal's wife is a priest, so I don't believe he has a personal bias towards it.

My opinion of SSS isn't a very fair one, I admit. I went to the first meeting with one of my Christian friends... after much prodding by another one of my more "evangelical friend[s]"  who really wanted me to go. I think [it was] because [this person] gets sick of how PC [politically correct] I am at school, because I'm not very verbal about my faith, [and] instead I try to let Christ shine through my example rather than my words.

Anyways, [my friend] and I went to it at GHS [Grapevine High School]. We had a hard time finding a parking spot and we came into the cafeteria that was filled to the brim with students. People were serving food so we got that, but we were starting to feel sort of uncomfortable about it because we were seeing so many kids that were the type of kids you just didn't care to see outside of school, and it felt really fake just being there. Like "Look! I'm trendy too! What, YOU didn't know that I was a Christian? It's like my second life, duh!"

I saw my friend... [who] seem[ed] to enjoy it, so I didn't express my opinion. Then after we all signed our name (they had over 1000 attendees that night ) we were herded into the gymnasium. All of us packed it. Then we had a few people introduce themselves, yelled a couple of huzzahs and then this local band came out and started playing. It was a Christian band but you couldn't hear the lyrics. And they just kept playing.

Seriously Nate, it had as much spiritual value as a talent show. [My friend] and I looked at each other and we were sort of turned off, so we quietly slipped out of the doors. As we were sneaking out we came across my friend... [who] asked us accusingly where we were going. With out any qualms I told [my friend] that we were leaving and [they] told us that [they were] doing the same thing! For [them] the whole thing was so showy, and the last straw was when [they] turned around to see all the "shining faces" of Christ, only to see people making out in the stands! In the end we all laughed it off and went out to Subway where we had a really enjoyable Bible study.

Basically, I was sort of disgusted by the program. It could be a very beneficial club if well directed, but I think it lost focus of its goals while trying to appeal and involve everybody and become a "just say no all ye Christians" organization to reduce alcohol consumption. Plus, how is an organization based off a religion devoted to loving one another going to accomplish its goals by creating hostility in its own community through brandishing lawyers like weapons? The only offensive weapon given to us by God is his word. Perhaps the additional lawyer weapon was omitted in the translation.
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I think the last paragraph is priceless. I am as "evangelical" as nearly anyone. I love to tell people I meet about Jesus and the love God lavishes on us through him. And yet I am perplexed at those who would "fight for their rights" as Christians using legal coercion. I mean, I understand using the courts and legal coercion to protect one's home, property, person, or family from crime. But to force Jesus in somewhere he is not wanted? If we are the body of Christ, is this not like using Christ's foot to kick in the door of the public school? Is it not like brandishing Christ's fist to give someone a legal "sucker punch" if they do not let us do what we want?

The only place Jesus ever used force when he was on Earth was in a religious establishment: to drive hypocrisy out of the temple. He never used force to bust into people's houses who did not want him there.

I can understand that the school district didn't want the gym taken over by a religious group because  they don't want lawsuits from atheists and non-Christians, nor do they want to be forced to grant similar rights to other religions to pass out their religious propaganda as well.  I mean, Texas schools are in enough trouble just trying to teach academic subjects right now.  We don't need to make them a religious battle ground as well!  Our students might not know reading or math... but they can have praise and worship led by a uber-trendy band after school!  Praise Jesus!

But, the parents and pastors got some Christian legal defense team to write some nasty letters about potential lawsuits and lots of [taxpayer] money lost in the legal battle, and guess what?  The school district crumbled.  Now the Christians have successfully used legal COERCION to demand their RIGHTS.  My question is this:  Is this type of coercion a Christ-like attitude, and does this type of coercion help establish God's Kingdom on Earth?

First of all, I would say that demanding "our rights" is not a Christian attitude at all.  Jesus emptied Himself of all of His rights, even His place in Heaven, to become our servant- our slave (Phil 2:1-11).  Jesus tells us to give up all rights to ourselves and give everything self-sacrificially to serve Him (cf. Mat 10; 16.24-28).  Paul tells us that we are not our own, we were bought at a price (1Co 6). Paul does not even try to "grasp" his own rights by force (cf. 1Co 9), but instead gives up his own rights so that he could "become all things to all people, that [he] might by all means save some" (1Co 9.22).

We do not spread God's Kingdom by demanding our rights as citizens in a supposedly "Christian Nation" (is there such a thing?).  Rather, we spread God's Kingdom by sacrificially emptying ourselves in Love and serving others.  They will know we are Christians by our love, not by our legal threats or political platform (cf. John 13:34-35).  Jesus Himself says that if we want to be "first" (first in the Church, first in society), we must become "slave of all" (Mark 10:44).  Conversion of culture comes by spreading the Gospel through Love (genuine caring for all people), Service (self-emptying self-giving to help others), and Truth (well reasoned discourse on the reality of Jesus Christ).  It does not come, it cannot come, by "demanding our rights".  That is to use the weapons of the world, and we are called to NOT use the weapons of the world (2Co 10.4).

Secondly, does the impersonal sharing of the Gospel through mass media work at forming Christ in anyone- particularly in teenage students? In my 13 years of experience working in youth ministry and counseling, I can honestly say that if someone is not discipled by a mentor in a one-on-one or small group setting, they will not remain Christian, no matter how sincere a conversion experience they have ever had at a mass rally. Furthermore, I will tell you that someone who has never had a emotional "conversion experience", if they are discipled for years in a small group, will become a devoted follower of Jesus. Furthermore, if you get people serving others and praying for others, their likelihood to become a follower of Christ goes up exponentially.

In fact, to take it a step further, I doubt that massive, consumer-oriented, entertainment focused rallies, can ever do anything to bring anyone into the Kingdom unless there are tons of mature Christians on hand to integrate converts into the Body of Christ over the long haul. In short, I have a problem with the idea that legally coercing a school to allow a non-church affiliated "Christian" group to pack a gym full of students, have a "pep rally for Jesus", and entertain them with a "really cool" Christian rock band, will do anything to spread God's Kingdom on Earth. In fact, I fear it may do quite the opposite.

Wouldn't it be a better use of Kingdom vision and Kingdom resources to get all of these "on fire" youth into mentoring programs where they go to Junior Highs and Elementary schools once a week and tutor and mentor at risk kids? Or, how about getting Christian adults to come in and tutor at-risk high school teens? In this way people could learn that they were genuinely loved by Christians, and this could open a door to share the Gospel with others.

Or, how about using the same energy to start a campus club that gathers old clothes and shoes from rich suburban kids and gives them to the needy?  Or, how about a club that goes around doing lawn work for elderly and indigent residents in their community?  Or, how about starting a system of small-group Bible studies and prayer groups that met before or after school, so that people could actually be discipled, rather than merely entertained?

I know I am just a voice crying out in the wilderness here... But isn't that what this generation is hungering for?

No more plastic, trendy, legally-enforced Jesus.  We want the real Thing!

WWJD: What would Judas do?

Well, it is apparently time for us all to answer the question: What would Judas do?  A couple of my students and families at Church have asked me about the newly translated "Gospel of Judas" that has inspired much media hype, and yet another run-of-the-mill "groundbreaking" historical documentary on the National Geographic Channel this Easter Sunday. If you don’t know what I am talking about look at these online resources: either go to Wikipedia and type in "Gospel of Judas", or check out this collection (which includes a complete translation) at tertullian.org, or if you can read ancient Coptic, check out the text and translation here.

The questions I am getting are all versions of this well-thought out question by Matt:

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Nate,

What would you say about the Gospel of Judas and other newly discovered or popular apocryphal texts? There is a great buzz in the media over these texts and there are claims that these things show that the Christianity of the early church was not monolithic but full of “diversity”.  Do such arguments ignore the unity of the early church? And as Protestants, does our low view of church history (especially before the Reformation) set us up for failure when we have to confront questions about how the New Testament canon formed?

Matt
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The first thing that I want to say is that the "Gospel of Judas" is not new. It is part of a whole slew of Christian and Christian-inspired literature that was hidden in the sands of Egypt during the Roman persecutions of 250-313 AD. This was the era of the Roman empire when Christianity was systematically persecuted everywhere, with large groups of Christians imprisoned and killed, large amounts of property confiscated, and large amounts of Christian literature burned.  Rather than have their books burned, many Christian and semi-Christian groups hid them until it was safe to dig them out again... only to die for their faith or be made unable to retrieve the books.

Thus, huge libraries of Christian literature have been found in Egypt dating from 250-300 AD preserved by the dry desert conditions.  The "Gospel of Thomas" is part of this: It was found in the 1970's, pieced together over the last 3 decades, only to have a "literary" quality translation made in the last couple of years. The carbon dating and ink residue seems to date it at 220 to 340 AD, while the handwriting script and paper type seem to date it around 400 AD. It is reasonable to assume it was written originally sometime between 130 to 250 AD.  It is only 13 double-sided codex pages long.

The second thing to say is that is definitely was not written by Judas (since he killed himself immediately after Jesus' crucifixion according to Scripture and every other ancient tradition we have). Nor was it written by anyone from the apostolic generation or even their disciples. The earliest group to have written it would have been 3rd generation Christians, and perhaps more like 7th generation.

Third, it was not unknown by the early Christian community.  Around 180 AD Bishop Irenaeus wrote his massive study "Against Heresies" in an attempt to provide a theological map of the various semi-Christian communities that were deviating from the faith and practice of the Apostles.  Foremost of these groups was a diverse set of communities that we roughly call "Gnostic".  Gnostic groups came in all sorts of flavors, from pagan to Jewish to Christian.  They all had a few things in common:

1. Matter was evil and something we need to be saved out of.

2. The natural world is a corruption of spiritual reality, brought about by a corrupted Creator that emanated from the "Source of being" through a series of "steps" usually called "Aeons"

3. The first few Aeons share in the goodness of the Spiritual Source of all, but as more and more Aeons emanated, they devolved until they eventually become evil matter.

4. Trapped in matter is a remnant of the Source, and in order to be liberated, this remnant or "spark" of the Divine must ascend back up the Aeons to be united to the Source.

5. The only way that this happens is through being initiated into secret "knowledge" (Greek: Gnosis) that helps one master the Aeons and return to the Source.

6. Usually the Creator-God of this world (often called a "Demiurge") is evil and is trying to hinder those with the "spark" from ascending back to the Source.

Semi-Christian versions of Gnosticism add that Jesus is one of the higher Aeons who took a human form to lead those humans with the "spark" back to the Source (not all humans have the spark!). In Jesus, and Jesus' "secret disciples", is found the Gnosis to ascend back to the pure spiritual world of the Source.

After reading the "Gospel of Judas" it is clear that it was written long after the authentic Gospels as a piece of Gnostic propaganda. This isn’t to knock propaganda. The authentic Gospels are true propaganda. It is merely to say that it contains many of the aspects written above.  For instance, this "Gospel" speaks of a crazy system of Aeons and emanations that led to our creation:

verses 49-50: "The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each [50] [of them five] firmaments, [for a total of] three hundred sixty [firmaments …]. They were given authority and a [great] host of angels [without number], for glory and adoration, [and after that also] virgin spirits, for glory and [adoration] of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments."

Furthermore, to highlight the "matter is bad" theme, this Gospel repeatedly claims that those born as mere mortals cannot inherit the Kingdom.  It also pictures Jesus giving Judas a divine mission to turn him in, because if Judas caused Jesus' death then Judas would:

"...exceed all of them... For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me."

The "man that clothes me" is a clear reference to the host body of the Spirit of Jesus.  Jesus is congratulating Judas for freeing him of the pesky host-body so that he can again become a pure spirit and ascend the Aeons back to perfection. Kind of creepy if you ask me. And Irenaeus thought the same thing when he decried them in 180 AD:

"Others again declare that Cain [who committed the first murder] derived his being from the Power above [the Source], and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator [the bad Aeon who made the physical world], yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia [the good Aeon trying to free the physical world] was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."

What was the solution for Irenaeus? It was two fold: a "succession of Bishops" and a "rule of faith". Typically, we tend to try and solve doctrinal controversies by limiting the canon of Scripture to a certain number of books and only argue on the basis of those books (i.e. the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura). But, Irenaeus and the whole early Church understood that this would not work because:

1. It was the Church who defined what Scripture was, not Scripture that defined what the Church was. There is no book of the Bible that tells what books should be in the Bible, therefore God has left it to the Holy Spirit inspiring the Church as a whole to recognize what books are truly Scripture.

2. Even if there had been a defined Canon of Scripture at that time, the interpretations of that Canon would have been as varied as there were various readers (just look at the misery that is Protestantism today for evidence of that). Thus, we must again wait on the corporate inspiration of the Holy Spirit to guide us as a whole "into all truth", and give us a "rule" to interpret Scripture by.

Therefore, rather than choosing to solve the Gnostic crisis by means of a closed canon of Scripture (which would have, and did, cause as many problems as it solved), Irenaeus and the whole Church up to the mid-300's solved it by an appeal to core doctrinal consensus and historical continuity.

1. In ensuring historical continuity, the early Church stressed that valid Christian communities were those who had a bishop that was openly ordained by other bishops who could trace their roots back to the Apostles. It was rightly believed that everything Jesus taught was open for all, and that this open teaching was transmitted to the Apostles, who then transmitted and entrusted it to their disciples, on and on, until the current generation of bishops. Thus, when a group claimed "secret knowledge", bishop Joe could easily refute them by saying that he was ordained and taught by bishop Ed who was ordained and taught by bishop Polycarp who was ordained and taught by the Apostle John, who was ordained and taught by Jesus.  And since none of the handed down teachings or writings that have been protected by this succession talk about any crazy "gnosis" or creepy "aeons", then what the Gnostics say is pure bunk.

2. In ensuring doctrinal consensus, the early Church also handed down a "rule of faith" which summarized the basic knowledge and commitments of the Christian community. Although practice of worship varied widely across Christain communities, they shared a common standard, or "rule" of faith. This rule came from the Baptismal teaching that all Christians had to undergo and understand before they were baptized into the Church. Although this rule of faith had some variations (especially in vocabulary) across the ancient world, there was an outstanding unanimity in concepts. This rule is always Trinitarian in shape, and consists in faith in God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit in the Church.  This rule usually looked very similar to the Apostle's Creed, and these rules were later used as the basis for the Nicene Creed.

It was this outstanding core doctrinal consensus (found in the rule of faith) combined with an acute sense of historical continuity (found in the apostolic succession of bishops) that allowed authentic Christianity to face down and get rid of those revisionist versions of Christianity that gave a false Gospel and another Jesus.

I believe that one of the reasons we get so thrown in a loop these days over stuff like the "DaVinci Code" and the "Gospel of Judas" is that as modern Christians most of us have no sense of core doctrinal beliefs, nor of historical continuity. We are the epitome of Protestantism: we exist in the a-historical here and now, cut off from every tradition, and we pick and choose from the buffet of doctrinal options that make us the happiest, using an infinitely flexible canon of Scripture that we can proof-text to say whatever we want.

When a new Gospel or a new Jesus comes along, we do not realize it is actually a very old heresy that has been dealt with ages ago by our fore-fathers (and mothers) in the faith.  Rather, we make a "groundbreaking" TV show about it, get everybody stirred up, and sell a lot of books to everyone on all sides. To one side we sell books to "defend" Christianity from this new [=old] threat. To the other side we sell books to show that this new [=old] Gospel leads us into a more "tolerant", more "modern" Christianity that the "mean old Church" has been trying to hide from us for over a thousand years. Never mind that descriptions of it, and reasons for rejecting it, have been open knowledge in the Church fathers for 1800 years. As long as the consumer machine makes money hand over fist, and everybody is happy. Then the fad dies out, and the "scholars" dig yet another one of these semi-Christian Gospels out of the heap of materials we found in Egypt, and start a new fad to make more money.

So, what would Judas do when faced with the multiplicity of options of how to understand Jesus, combined with the marketing machine dead set on making money from all of them? I bet he would just go out and hang himself.
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Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian

2006-04-07

Ask Nate: On Faith, Prayer, Mountains, and Seas

This week on "Ask Nate", Jake asks:

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Hey Nate,

This is one of my Biblical questions.

Mark 11:20-25  
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!"  "Have faith in God," Jesus answered.  "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."

If our faith will let us move a mountain, why can't we do that?  Why can't I pray to God to fold my laundry?  Is it using God as a tool?  

Or are there doubts that I am just unaware of?  If I was to repeatedly say "God will allow someone to find a cure for cancer" does that mean that eventually I will believe it so whole-heartedly that eventually I will have no doubts of it?

I was just curious as to why we can't move mountains.  Do we have doubts that we'll never overcome or are we testing Him? Take your time in getting back to me.
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My first response is "Why didn't you ask about the fig tree?" I have never figured out to my satisfaction why Jesus had to curse a poor innocent fig tree to get his point across!  Some things I will just have to wait for heaven to find the exact answer to.

But, as for faith and mountains, I think the answer is actually a bit easier.

First, there are problems with the English translation of this passage (and all of the other passages in the New Testament) which say things like "ask and it will be done for you". In Greek, pronouns and verb endings can end in second person plural. Texan has a word for this, and it is "y'all". But in English, it just gets translated as "you", which to individualistic Americans sounds like Jesus is saying "you individual people must have faith, and ask, and it will be done for you".  But in Greek it doesn't come out that way.  It comes out as a community endeavor.  It would make more sense if we translated it into Texan instead of English, so I will do that now:

Mark 11:22-24
And Jesus answered them saying: Y'all need to have the faith of God! Truly I'm tellin' y'all that whoever should say to this mountain "Get up and get out into the sea!"- and if they ain't doubtin' in their heart, but really have faith that what they said is happenin'- it will happen for them! 'Cause of this I say to y'all: whatever y'all pray for and ask for, y'all need to believe that y'all have it, and it will happen for y'all.

This believing, asking, and receiving are all communal, not individual. It is not enough to believe alone. We must believe together and pray together and ask together. This communal aspect is what keeps us from getting selfish and "believing in God" for our laundry to get magically done. That is one of the reasons why Jesus promises to act in community: "Where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there with them". This does not exclude individual faith, but strengthens and directs it.  In the passage above, all of the verbs are second person PLURAL except for the person speaking to the mountain. When we are acting out of the depths of the shared faith of the community, then our individual faith (and actions based on faith) are incredibly powerful. But, when we are just having faith in selfish wish-fulfillment, we will be powerless.

To use you cancer-curing analogy: If you seek the discernment and prayer of your faith community, and then you get a lot of people who say "You know what Jake, I was praying and seeking God, and I really believe he IS going to use you to cure cancer!" And then they pray over you, and the whole community really believes this is the will of God, I would have every reason to believe that you actually would find a cure to cancer... or at least be given the gift of healing so that cancer victims who you prayed for got healed (which God does do quite often!).

Here's the trick: the Spirit of God working through community tends to broaden our vision, and when the entire community agrees and believes the same thing, that strengthens our faith immensely. Likewise, when we are going off on our own tangent and it is not God's will, God will use the community to tell us to back off. That is why prayer and learning as a group is SO VERY IMPORTANT in learning to follow God's will.

Second, the word "mountain" here probably does not mean a literal mountain. I mean, it could. God made the universe with a Word, he could move a literal mountain if he wanted. Yet, the word "mountain" was (and is) a common word to talk about human struggles and problems. Like the phrase "don't make a mountain out of a molehill". Think about the words that we use to speak of struggles that have no "literal" connection to human struggles: "I've dug myself into a ditch", "I've hit a snag", "I'm in a rut", "My life is a mess", or "My life has taken a nosedive".

People translating this 2000 years from now might think I was speaking of literal ditches, snags, ruts, messes, and nosedives... but existing in our culture it is clear that I am simply speaking of personal problems using 21st century metaphors. In the same way, a "mountain" symbolizes a personal problem that is hard to climb over that takes a lot of effort. This saying of Jesus was probably speaking of God's ability to remove and solve our personal problems and struggles, rather than changing our geography.

Third, sometimes God does not remove the mountain because he has something for us to learn by climbing over it. Even Jesus, the Son of God, who has more faith than all of us combined, was not able to "move" the mountain of Golgotha. He died on it. He only "moved" it three days later by moving the stone at His resurrection. We must ALWAYS remember the cross and the empty tomb when we are pondering how God answers prayer and leads us.

2006-04-04

Revolt!

Time to come clean. I am obsessed with consumerism, because I think that consumerism will be the spiritual force to recon with in this century (maybe longer). I believe it will be the "delivery vehicle" through which the enemy will try to accomplish what CS Lewis calls "the abolition of man". The enemy used nationalism, fascism, and communism as his primary delivery vehicles in the 19th and 20th centuries. But, now consumerism is trying to consume all human society and make humans into the perfect renewable resource. It has a vested interest in destroying families, churches, and every other "support structure" in our lives so that we have to rely on purchasing products to be "whole" people (wholly addicted, that is). I really think that consumerism is one of the powers that makes Christianity so powerless in our society.

A divided Church that squabbles about everything is the perfect Church for consumerism. That beast will get us so tied up in pointing fingers at each other that It will be able to sell product to all sides, enslave us in never ending inner-turmoil, and we will never be the wiser.  We will think we are doing God's work by having the Protestants opposed to the Catholics opposed to the Liberals opposed to the Fundamentalists opposed to the Pentecostals opposed to the Mainliners opposed to the Independents opposed to the... (et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum). But, really we are feeding the consumer beast, because look at all of the product and market niches we have generated, not to mention all of the marketing potential.

Consumerism's greatest trick thus far, other than playing Church division for all it is worth, is to make the Church a commodity for personal fulfillment. Christ and His Church becomes merely a product to make my life better, and not a family (or a body) that I am a part of, in which I am saved from the evil powers of the world, and through which I work to save others from the powers of the world.  If we all could get out of our heads that Church is about making me happy, and get into our heads that partaking in the fellowship, sacraments, and mission of the Church is being part of the community of LIFE, and cutting ourselves off from the fellowship, sacraments, and mission of the Church is being part of the culture of DEATH, then I think we would see the passion and power of the Spirit return to the Church.

I know that is crazy, but that is what I think.  I was surfing "Ad Busters" today (http://www.adbusters.org).  I agree with a lot of their views, and some of their anti-ads are great, but I think they radically miss the point of WHY we should opt out of consumerism. Their purpose is environmental and neo-marxist: Opt out of consumerism so that we won't ruin the environment and we can re-distribute wealth via centralized governmental power. This is bogus on two counts: First, the environmental concerns are based on dubious science.  They might be right, but they may very well be wrong.  Second, the free market (not any version of bureaucratized socialism or Marxism) has shown to be the most effective way of distributing wealth and making whole nations prosperous. The free market is a GOOD thing, which we ought to thank God for (1Tim. 4.4).  

Consumerism, on the other hand, takes the free market and turns it into something demonic. It is the opposite error of Communism. Communism took the God-given ideal of charity and mercy and turned it into a demonic system of coercive government re-distribution of wealth, and denial of the worth of personal work and effort. Consumerism, on the other hand, makes everything a marketable commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder, for the maximum profit, with minimum responsibility, by creating a whole system of marketing that creates new "needs" out of what were once "wants" and "luxuries", in a never-ending, never-thinking cycle of activity, consumption, and production.

In short, consumerism is the parasite that we live WITHIN, which sucks everything human out of us, only to quantify it, re-package it, and re-market it back to us for maximum profit.

I want us to revolt against consumerism, but not for the reasons that Adbusters does. I do not want to set up a neo-marxist state. I want to revolt and bring about a free market that meets people's needs, encourages personal responsibility, devalues gluttony, and re-values wisdom and moderation. I want to revolt and bring about a Church that offers a radically united, radically loving, radically Christ-centered, radically Spirit-empowered alternative to the parasite of consumerism. I want to revolt and live a life of radical simplicity where I love Jesus above all, and love my neighbors as myself.

In 1998 I wrote a poem called "Revolt!".  I will share that with you now:

Throw out your televisions! Men of valor and ancient heroism rise up and slay that foul mouthed beast who sits enthroned in your dens and living rooms and bedrooms and inner nooks of comfort! Rise up and exorcize that little flickering ghost of the dead dreams of a sensual society! Men and women bear your strong arms and rip apart those chains of mass produced market tested conformity which seem so lifelike but are actually mere two dimensional substitutes for reality flickering on the small screen!

Throw out your televisions! Hear the ravenous applause of the hollow implosions of ten thousand picture tubes collapsing in upon themselves as they meet their maker on cold concrete streets! Hear the cold lament of bitter tears as the Nielsen ratings and mass marketing aficionados meet the demise of their art- no longer able to cart around society in their greedy wheelbarrow of misconceptions!

Throw out your televisions! Feel the wind fly past as the vacuum of so many hollow minds is filled again for the first time in decades by actual thought! Mute armies of society slowly gain the ability to communicate again as the morphine like tranquilizer of the idiot box slowly becomes a thing of the past! Cries of pain rise up from the vast sea of humanity as something incredibly painful takes place- they have to THINK for themselves again! It is the pain of the addict coming clean after years of self abasement- and this pain is GLORIOUS!

Throw out your televisions! Discover again great truths and great thoughts long hidden in volumes gathering dust in the den! Crack open your books! Crack open the doors to your theater! To your library! To your symphony! To your poetry! To your garage bands! To your churches! To your schools! To your prose! To your fact, fantasy, philosophy, and fiction! To your Bible! To your God! To all those things long dubbed 'boring' by our sensual search for pleasure! Crack them open and drink them in!

Throw out your televisions! Like the cripple beggar was told so long ago to take his mat and walk- so you to must destroy your household god and rise up and think! Live life beyond entertainment- beyond numbing the mind in mindless chatter and accepting whatever flows out from that box into your soul! Turn from your comfortable dens and face the real world with your mind ready and sharp!

Throw out your televisions and seize the day! Get a vision for the vision-quest of life and die to find it- do anything but sit on complacent recliners and live life to be entertained! Throw out your televisions! Smash your comfort zone! Destroy your laziness! Annihilate everything in life that is not real! Burn down your soul with refiner's fire until all that is left is what is true!

Throw out your televisions!
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Copyright © 1998, 2006 Nathan L. Bostian
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.