The Nicodemus Objection

Over on Facebook, Pastor Rick wrote:

…if there was continuity in the constituting [of] God’s covenant people, Jesus would never have told Nicodemus that he must be born again. How dare Jesus be so pietistic as to tell a respected “covenant” member that he needs to be born again.

He echoes a question I once asked: why would Jesus tell Nicodemus that he must be born again if he was already in the covenant by circumcision?

Someone pointed out to me that “…Jesus is not talking about individual regeneration in John 3. Rather, he is talking about the need for a new Israel, a new humanity. Nicodemus needs to follow Jesus into the new world through death and resurrection. Being baptized will unite him with the disciples of Jesus, with those who are following Jesus into a new world.”

James Jordan puts it this way:

Nicodemus is brilliant. He says to Jesus, “You jest, surely. How many times have we been born again? the Flood, Sinai, Elijah, Cyrus. But it has never taken. You would have to back into mother’s womb and start over.”

“Yep,” says Jesus. “And watch me do it.”

Sure enough, Nicodemus is there when Jesus is buried back into mother’s womb. I’m certain Nicodemus knew Jesus would rise again, born anew from the soil. Maybe the disciples had doubts, but Nicodemus knew.

In union with Jesus’ resurrection we are all born anew from mother’s womb.

He also points out that John describes the tomb as a virgin:

19.41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.

(Genesis 24.16 The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known.)

Put this together with Luke’s record of Jesus vs. Sadducees on resurrection where he says that one becomes a son of God by being a son of the resurrection, and Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 about the “birth pangs” of death being unable to stop Jesus, the use of Psalm 2 (“today I have begotten you”) in the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus in Acts, the title “firstborn of the death,” Romans all over the place….

And then there is this from Biblical Horizons.

And this essay from Jordan’s “Trees and Thorns,” chapter 10.

Then Yahweh God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).
Continue reading “The Nicodemus Objection”

To Change the World, 7

This chapter is a conclusion of the argument up to this point. Hunter warns against elitism and says that all of God’s people must be involved in this world-changing vocation. We all stand equal before God. But too often, “the populism that is inherent to authentic Christian witness is often transformed into an oppressive egalitarianism that will suffer no distinctions between higher and lower or better and worse.” And so there is a tension between ministering in cultural powerful areas and not becoming elitist.
Further, Christian might actually find themselves in positions of power [I should hope so!]. Hunter wants no part of Christians using political power towards “faith-based ends.” One wonders what ends he does want Christians using political power for? Fixing the sewer system? If he is merely critiquing the shallow thinking and foolish sell-outs that characterize much political thinking on the Right, he is fine by me. If he is saying that Christian rulers are an oxymoron (as I suspect he is) then we part company. I can concur with him that saving America isn’t our calling or goal. Not that America anyway. But our Savior taught us:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Baptized nations will serve Jesus as King. Rome was the first to do so. Many others followed. All nations are under the rule of Jesus now, whether or not they like it. This does not mean we should “seize power”, indeed, we are not ready to. But Hunter’s turn towards quietism is wrong. He advocates faithful presence – healthy networks of Christians in every field. Amen to that! He wants “an alternative culture”, Amen to that! But don’t cut politics out of that culture, or we are simply asking for future disasters.

To Change the World 6

Hunter examines the “cultural economy of American Christianity.” He traces the obliteration of the WASP establishment in the 60’s to the current position of evangelicalism at the margins of our elite institutions. I would note here that George W. Bush was ostensibly an evangelical and he had a pretty significant position at the center of the elites! And yet he failed to do much of anything, or even try, other than to offer platitudes about “the Almighty.”

Hunter examines giving and the large foundations that support intellectual pursuits. Most Christian giving is in small amounts and to things such as para-church organizations that fail to support Christian scholarship (in his analysis).

He points out that many of the newer institutions and periodicals that have evolved are in response to or are parallel to their elite counterparts. Catholics are doing a somewhat better job with places such as Ave Maria and Christendom College (no mention of New St. Andrews here). Evangelicals have created an ecosystem of cable networks like TBN (debatably evangelical), publishing houses and music all of which apes the world and rarely if ever influences the central places of production. Our books don’t get reviewed by the New York Review of Books for instance.

Furthermore, there are Christians here and there in the main institutions of our day, but they are not connected to larger networks of influence and don’t reflect a unified Church outlook on life. Again I don’t see any reference to Opus Dei in this chapter and I’d be interested to see what Hunter thinks of their work. The bottom line to Hunter is:

In terms of the cultural economy…Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production.

He says that Christians are not present where the greatest influence over our culture exists. Now, in our age I don’t know how possible it is for believers to be present in those places of power. Someone who is really sharp and outspoken about Jesus might never get hired to review books by a magazine steeped in hostility to God and the Church. In the past, despite great evil, their was often a veneer of politeness and respect towards religion that allowed for Christians to move in certain social circles that are now closed to them. Perhaps Hunter agrees with this, but in this chapter I got the impression that it is the fault of believers for not being where they should be and being connected to networks, when in fact I think they largely cannot penetrate these places. On the “thick networks” issue he is no doubt correct, but this points to much larger issues with the church and our divisions. I don’t expect these issues to be worked out for decades or centuries as I think the Protestant age is over and now things will stay in upheaval until a new order is established, which will take time.

I Can’t Interpret the Bible but I Can Interpret History

Perhaps responding to recent apostasies, Mark Horne put the problem with certain conversions to Rome and the East perfectly:

You are not impressing anyone when you claim that you don’t have the ability to read the Bible for itself but you do have the ability to study all of Christian history and identify the supernatural office that can tell you what to think.
If you can really read and argue from history in the hope of persuading others, then why not simply argue for your views from Scripture?  If you aren’t following your own authority in deciding which church to submit to then how are you following your own authority when you read the Bible and believe what it says? If you are willing to argue over the meaning of the last papal writings, why not argue over the meaning of Scripture?
The fragmented nature of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches gives the lie to the “unity” narrative. And yes, you think you can interpret history perfectly, but not the Bible…patently absurd.

To Change the World 5

Chapter 5 is called “Evidence in History” and in it Hunter traces how his take on transforming culture has played out in the growth of the Church in Rome, its expansion through the Middle Ages, and the Reformation. I really have very little to say about this chapter. It is a solid run through the past 2,000 years and I agree with it. In all of these cases you have inspired Church leaders who are steeped in the Bible and have a heart for outreach who are also connected to patrons who support them financially and make change possible. In many cases elites are converted (think of those in Caesar’s court already in the New Testament) and populations follow.

My main take away in thinking about this chapter a bit was that most change is sheer providence and riding the wave of timing and opportunity. I doubt that Luther set out to turn the entire world upside down and shatter the unity of the Western Church. I doubt that Augustine was plotting to dominate Western intellectual history via his writings. Things happened and they were in the right place at the right time. The vibe I am getting from this is that being intentional is fine and making plans is fine, but really we have zero ability to forecast the effects of what we do and we certainly cannot force change onto the world. A lot of our worldview training and strategic thinking looks laughable in the light of this. We should do what we do, work and pray, raise our kids and make it our ambition to lead a quite life. God will take care of the big changes. If you are rich or well positioned academically then you might be in place to make a greater contribution, but most of us will not do so. There are only a few figures riding the waves of change.

I think of the Beatles in this regard. What they were and what they did cannot be duplicated because they were at the right place at the right time. The culture was seething and things were changing rapidly. These guys caught the wave and rode it. They didn’t have a mission statement about how to change music. They were just there when it all happened. Serendipity, as Hunter says. I also recall one of my pastors growing up who talked about the fall of Communism and how the Church was scheming and planning to do this and that, and then God simply knocked a wall over and knocked regimes over in a matter of months. The unthinkable happened and it wasn’t due to any grand design or 50 year plan. I take comfort in this. God is in charge of the storm and it isn’t up to me or you to out think the world and come up with some think tank that produces young leaders who will overthrow everything.

To Change the World, 4

I really liked this chapter. It presents “an alternative view of culture and cultural change in eleven propositions.” Scott already posted them, and since I am short on time tonight, I will copy and paste Scott’s list in an abbreviated form. The 11 propositions are:

  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations.
  2. Culture is a product of history: The fact that culture has been built over centuries also helps to give culture its staying power.
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical: Culture is not only symbolic, it is also made.
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power: Certain people and things in cultures have more cultural power than others.
  5. Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery.”
  6. Culture is generated within networks.
  7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent: Culture is not independent from other factors in a society, but rather is bound together with institutions like the economy and the state.
  8. Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.
  9. Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige.
  10. World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap.
  11. Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight.
I wish I had time to expand on all these points, but let me instead riff on them a bit. I find the views put forward in this chapter to be very in line with how Biblical culture seems to operate and with my own experience in life. I have a largely Norwegian heritage and I grew up in Minnesota. These cultural markers stay with me wherever I go (it’s why I love Garrison Keillor so much)! My family jokes about these things, but they are real. Our reticence to confront people publicly, our suspicion of those who are noisy or draw attention to themselves, our point of view on just about everything is real, and yet hard to define or articulate. It’s the same with everyone, although American life is a jumble of ethnic heritages and Church histories, these things still impact us. I hate being told to clap or repeat something a pastor says, not for any identifiable propositional reason, but due to cultural sensibilities that have been caught, not taught.

I am deeply influenced by marketing and by the corporate culture I exist in. Corporations seem to be only the people that make them up, and yet they are so much more. Ideas and sensibilities carry on through time and are greater than any individual. IBM meant a man in a grey suit with a short haircut. Apple means design principles inherited from Dieter Rams and a certain devotion to elegance and secrecy. Adidas (to me) meant East Coast kids at raves who drive BMW’s and play soccer. This list could be multiplied infinitely. Things press down on us in an unconscious way and stamp their impress on us, and yet we think we are making independent choices. Read Marsden or Noll about the history of American Evangelicals and see how captive we are to notions of freedom and liberty from Common Sense Realism and the American Revolution, and yet all the while thinking these notion are gleaned directly from the Bible. So I agree with Hunter that institutions matter, corporations matter, states matter, and individuals matter.

To his point about the elites being crucial to change, I again agree. This is why Opus Dei is important and successful in Catholic evangelism. Read about Opus Dei and see how they operate: they target educated, elite and rich people who then spread the work to others. They are probably responsible for the conversion of Sam Brownback, Clarence Thomas and others and members that I know of include Roberts, Alito, Louis Freeh and many others. They have powerful ideas and powerful devotional practices that make evangelicals look shallow and tawdry and so they make converts. I think Protestants need an answer to them or we will have a totally Catholic Christian elite in our nation quite soon (we seem to be trending that way on an intellectual level already).

Calvinists today are largely unaware that their movement was at one time the progressive wave and the new thing that took the young intellectuals by storm centuries ago. It was not old men in studies who caught fire and spread Calvinism, it was the same people who a few decades ago would be Marxists and today would be into whatever is coming after post-modernism. C.S. Lewis captures this marvellously in his book English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Listen to him:

This will at least serve to eliminate the absurd idea that Elizabethan Calvinists were somehow grotesque, elderly people, standing outside the main forward current of life. In their own day they were, of course, the very latest thing. Unless we can imagine the freshness, the audacity, and (soon) the fashionableness of Calvinism, we shall get our whole picture wrong. It was the creed of progressives, even of revolutionaries. It appealed strongly to those tempers that would have been Marxist in the nineteen-thirties. The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists. (43)
Calvinism caught the wave and came to power as the leading edge of revolution. So many waves have followed: Transcendentalism, Deism, Communism and so forth. But my point is that Calvinism will not triumph by 25 people in an OPC somewhere clinging to the faith of their fathers, it will have to change and catch a future wave into the center in order to influence the culture truly again.

This also jives with what James Jordan has frequently said about most of the Biblical characters: they were rich or leading men in their day. We are trained that they were all poor and bedraggled, and some where. But Abraham had hundreds of servants and riches, David and Solomon were probably the equivalent of billionaires in our day. Many of the Apostles were probably at least Middle Class businessmen and Paul did not get his education at public school! The Bible itself was preserved by a hieratic caste of priests and scribes who had access to ancient languages and learning stretching back to Egypt and beyond. The Biblical culture was alien even to Israel itself! A small core of godly men preserved rich knowledge in the midst of a completely idolatrous culture around them where idols were in the very Temple of the Living God. In short, elites made the Bible and preserved it. Ministry to elites is vital, not at the expense of the poor, but certainly in tandem with it. The history of missionary efforts in Europe and other countries shows elites converting and mass populations following their lead. But contemporary evangelicalism exalts the masses and thinks that catering to them will produce cultural change – it has not happened. I am aligned with Hunter on these points and strongly encourage you to read this chapter, if nothing else in the book.

To Change the World, 3

Hunter’s third chapter is called “The Failure of the Common View.” He begins by affirming that evangelism, public policy making and pursuing justice are not bad things, indeed, they are central to being Christian. His contention is that while these things are good, they do not change the world in the way that we are often told that they will.

Hunter’s problem is with what he identifies as the working theory behind the strategies he has critiqued. He points out that America self-identifies strongly as a nation of faith, with only 12-14% of the population identifying as secularists. Hunter writes:

And yet our culture-business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment-is intensely materialistic and secular.

How is that these two truths can co-exist? [I can hear many saying that these folks aren’t really believers, but that is another argument.] Hunter then points out that conservative Protestants and Catholics are very active in giving money, Bible study and prayer and yet their influence is waning: “…these faith traditions have moved from a position of offense to one of defense.” The values of this large bloc of our citizens is largely NOT reflected in the larger culture despite our energy and numbers.  Hunter contrasts this lack of vitality with the over-sized influence of Jews (3.5% of the population) and gays (perhaps 3% of the population). Gays [with a willing culture] have moved gay marriage to the center stage of American life despite being vastly outnumbered in our nation. If culture simply equals the ideas of the largest party triumphing, this should not be so. Hunter says that, “…culture is in fact a much more complicated phenomenon than we normally imagine. Indeed, it often seems eerily independent of majority opinion.”

He shows how many Christian leaders emphasize harder work, greater dedication to thinking or acting correctly, studying the Bible more or something along those lines as the solution to the drift seen in the culture. Hunter says:

The apparent problem, in brief, is twofold: First, Christians just aren’t Christian enough. Christians don’t think with an adequate enough Christian worldview, Christians are fuzzy-minded, Christians don’t pray hard enough, and Christians are generally lazy toward their duty as believers.”

Boy have I been guilty of thinking this way! I would say that Jeremiads in this direction have been what I have heard my entire life in some measure bought into. And I do think there is a grain of truth in this approach. Many Christians aren’t critical thinkers and don’t exhibit strong prayer lives, etc. But isn’t this ever the case? As I grow older I tend to think that Christians who just scrape by and have a dim conception of God are common now and always have been, and that they make up the majority of the Church and that it is OK. It isn’t ideal, but we each have our own spheres to worry about, our own small circles. If we can simply be faithful in those spheres rather than wanting the whole world to wake up to a crusade of some sort or another, then we will have done well.

Hunter proceeds to describe what he believes to be the real problem which he identifies as idealism. To put it crudely, in idealism “physical objects are just pale imitations of the ideas and ideals that represent them.” In ancient thought this might mean that there is a perfect idea of horse in the unchanging realm above and that our earthly horses are crude imitations of this perfect ideal. In short, again, Christians often think that ideas are what really matter. Hunter uses the example of Christians thinking that sexual mores are not the battleground, but the worldview behind those mores. It is not clear to me what he is implying at this point. Sin is sin and someone engaging in sex outside of marriage has problems with their heart, ideas and actions. I feel like he lost the plot a bit at this point.

He goes on to talk about how idealism can give us the false idea that we can influence things when in fact “Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced.” He says (correctly in my view) that culture is not some linear set of things that flows from logical propositions, it “is embedded in structures of power.” OK, we agree. Culture is a jumble of notions, responses, attitudes and so on.

He then mentions a very intriguing development that I knew nothing about from someone named Andy Crouch. Crouch believes that culture is tangible things such as paintings, wood work and other things – not just ethereal ideas. Crouch says “The only way to change culture is to create more of it.” This approach carries a certain joy with it in contrast to the endless tomes, magazines and yes, blogs, that we tend to gravitate towards. Hunter again has a critique for this approach, in that there are powerful forces at work that are almost above understanding in shaping culture. He mentions branding – why do you like Nike and I like Adidas? Who knows? How do you define “cool”? Hunter believes that this view too is somewhat naive and “share many of the basic problematic assumptions of the dominant view.”

I look forward to the next chapter which proposes an alternative view of culture. We seem to be getting to the meat of the argument there.

Etc.

I see references to this book everywhere now [which makes me like it less]. Today’s example is this article at Touchstone.

Book Binding

It took several months of trying, but I finally found the time to finish my first ever book binding project. The gentleman who is teaching me is superb at the craft, and I am a rank amateur, but he was very patient along the way. It is fun to have the finished product in hand, however lacking in elegance it is. Here are some pictures of the final product.

Front Cover
Front Cover
End Papers
End Papers
Pages
Pages
The Book
The Book

To Change the World 2

In his second chapter, Hunter takes on the entire edifice of contemporary Christian thinking viz a vie culture. To start at the end, I will quote his summary at the end of the chapter:
If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world.
This account is almost wholly mistaken.
Hunter paints a picture of Christians focused on changing the world by evangelism, political action or social reform. Hunter points out Christians (and other religions) believe “…something like this: The essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals – in what are typically called “values.” Another term that seems to be interchangeable with culture in Christian-speak is “worldview.” Essentially, worldview breaks down to a set of ideas and values held by individuals. The thought goes that if we can get people thinking the right ideas and holding the right values, the entire culture will be turned around from the bottom-up.

One fundamental problem with this way of thinking in my mind is that Christians in the past were not consciously using a “worldview” to create a “culture.” At least, not as far as I know. St. Augustine did not need worldview thinking, he just did it. His thought-world was saturated in the Bible and that flowed down through centuries of students, merchants and plough-men to create a culture unconsciously. But I’m getting ahead of the game here.

One of the most prominent advocates of the worldview position amongst the mushy mass of evangelicals is Chuck Colson and Hunter features him prominently in this chapter. He quotes Colson writing, “history is little more than the recording of the rise and fall of the great ideas-the worldviews-that form our values and move us to act.” Colson advocates a course of action whereby we all start thinking right thoughts and taking right actions and things change for the better in concentric circles flowing out through families, communities and eventually to the nation.

Hunter then describes a rather common view amongst the antinomian mainstream today which is that “Laws change nothing. People do.” He is quoting James Boice at this point. This common trope calls for revival amongst the masses  because only a mass revival can turn the nation from wickedness to righteousness. He points to both Bill Bright and Pope John Paul II as advocates of interior change as the precursor to national change.

Then there is the political realm which Hunter believes has been the primary focus of Christian churches since the 80s. “…the dominant public witness of the Christian churches in America since the early 1980s has been a political witness.” This strikes me as true, but I would also note that the Church is usually only covered by the press when and if it is doing something political since politics is the overarching source of focus for our media to a nauseating degree. Everything revolves around elections, ballots, the White House, etc. A church holding a bake sale to send a missionary will not get press coverage. A church protesting this or that law will (maybe).

But Hunter points out the political focus of the Church recently. He has one quote from Tom Delay which I found humorous in light of how things turned out. Delay said about the 2000 election that “What Congress can accomplish with a Republican President will be incredible. It will be nothing less than a rediscovery of the values that made America a great nation and that have made Americans a good people.” We know how that worked out! Thanks to Tom Delay and George Bush for the theocracy they imposed and the Reformation that broke out…err, whatever.

The final component that Hunter looks at is social reform, the sort of “bottom-up” efforts such as teen abstinence, valuing fatherhood,etc. The thought is that by affecting teen sexuality or divorce, the culture will gradually be healed. I presented the verdict that Hunter renders on all these moves at the beginning of this post. He thinks they are fundamentally misguided.

What I don’t see in all of the various evangelical takes on cultural change is the place of sacraments, liturgy and community in the formation of the individual and the broader society. Does someone steeped in the liturgy that has been in place for a millenia look at the world the same as someone singing whatever Hillsong just cranked out and praying “Lord, just bless this service” prayers? Does someone who views reality sacramentally and in terms of the covenant arrive at the same destination as someone who thinks ritual is meaningless and only the heart matters? Does someone who thinks Jesus is coming back when Muslims invade Israel have the same formation as someone who thinks the earth is young and the Church may have 100,000 years of maturing left to go? Theology, liturgy, sacraments, and ecclesiology do matter and I don’t think some set of mere Christian worldview values will ever achieve much in our current denuded church situations.

Etc.

I would like to point out Peter Leithart’s excellent take on worldview here.