Either you only follow tweets for TMZ.com or ESPN Sportscenter or live under a rock away from the din and clang of the blogosphere if you haven’t heard the rumblings about Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) which will hit bookstores on March 29th.  For those following the flurry of activity, the basic issue that arose this weekend started when Justin Taylor posted a blog posting entitled Rob Bell: Universalist?  and later John Piper, the grandfather of neo-Calvinism, Synod of Dort extreme sport TULIP revivalism mentor for Mark Driscoll, and author of Desiring God, offered a rather snarky and damning (pun intended) tweet that simply read “Farewell Rob Bell” in relation to claims that Bell’s new book espoused a universalist view of salvation and Bell has finally been shown to be in league with the devil.   There have been claims from neo-Calvinists for a while that Bell and his NOOMA videos were merely drawing people away from orthodox Christian faith.  Swords began to rattle and the blogosphere exploded.  As reported in Christianity Today’s blog this weekend, Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday… that is the top 10 trending of ALL Tweets globally. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor’s blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers’ personal pages. The article had about 680 comments as of this morning.  Taylor, who is a VP for Crossway Books which publishes some of Piper’s work, has since revised his article, softening the blows he delivered originally including aligning the fate and character of Bell with II Corinthians 11: 14-15 –  “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” [to be expected, this is from the ESV which is the authorized version of neo-Calvinist Piper fanboys (yes… boys) everywhere since, as we have been told, other translations such as the ill-fated TNIV are too “gender-inclusive” and leading to the feminization of the Bible].  As many have pointed out, Bell’s book has yet to be released and these comments are coming from people who have either only seen the book jacket copy or a promotional video that Harper Collins has begun to circulate in promotion of the book.  In short, the blogosphere is offering a premonition of things to come akin to the movie “Minority Report” where people are charged and convicted of crimes they haven’t committed but *might* in the future – taking them out now will save collateral damage.

Some passing thoughts on this bit of cyber rumbling:

1. At its most base level, these type of fist fights in Christianity only serve to remind the world that Christians are seriously wounded, angry people with too much time on their hands to muse about this stuff, are more interested in winning fights on grounds of certainty rather than faith (the fate of souls can be known with certainty?!) and seeming lack of critical faculties in regard to self-reflection so as to see how much damage this type of snarking does in the name of Christ.

2. As Scot McKnight recently noted in a recent Christianity Today blog, this type of activity serves the book publishers best – in this case Crossway and Harper Collins are the winner –  as the church burns itself to the ground and should be a warning to leaders who choose flippancy rather than true compassion and reconciliation as their response in the very public age of social networking:

I’ve not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue … today … and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP’s book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke — and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity’s provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

3. I will ‘out myself’ as someone who respects what Rob has done, how he thinks, and frankly his deep and abiding concern for the well-being of all people who Christ died for – and I do mean *all* people as testified to in Romans 5:18.  True, I don’t find all his theology to be my cup of tea, but that is what makes him real to me… Rob actually has the humility to say he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to offer a one-stop shopping for everything.  Quite refreshing actually.  I will certainly read the book and look forward to seeing what Rob actually says… not what people who haven’t even read the book think.

4. On whether universalism is something worth a theological fist fight about, I suppose it matters as far as our dialogues move us toward humility before a God who is as mysterious and unknowing as He is revealed and apprehendable.  As a theologian I work with students who struggle with the final end of things all the time.  As a pastor who has performed many funerals for children, adult suicides, and family members who are atheists and well as asked the ultimate fate of those who don’t profess a faith in Christ nor have prayed the sinner’s prayer per our traditional understanding and therefore I get asked the questions of heaven and hell quite a bit.

Where we put the cross matters…

My short hand answer begins with where we have put the cross in our midst. For many the cross is iconically viewed every Sunday in church sanctuaries as something bolted to the wall at the end of the sanctuary, high above the ground and therefore beyond our grasp:

In this view there is only one way to approach the cross – it is a 2D thing in our 3D world that is unmovable, without blemish, and only reached through our reason since we cannot touch it or experience in any way that is existential.  There is a front door and no back door to this cross and there just one way to get there.

But what if we consider the cross as something that is truly in the center of our lives and not merely bolted to the wall? What if the cross that Christ died on and made the way forward for overturning the pattern of Adam as we hear in Romans 8 actually offers a new way, a new path, a new centerpoint for our lives that is truly 3D and in our midst:

Golgotha was a real place in the three-dimensional world with a cross planted in the midst of everything and in the presence of and for all people (Romans 5:18) that could be approached from all directions for this was a death offered for all the world (John 3:16) and not merely those who find the one aisle or doorway our small tribes might conjure as essential in phrase or practice.  This is a cross that is in the middle of everything we are about and everything God wishes for us.  What a shame to bolt that gift to a wall like a prized trophy head captured and preserved safely above all the muck and mire of real life.

Now, am I advocating for an essential universalism whereby everyone is saved and taken to paradise whether they like it or not?

No.

I stand on the belief that my ability to choose is something God counts as so precious as to give me a choice to love or not and thereby I can opt out of relationship with God, deny the offer of paradise, and build my own Hell whether on earth or in the afterlife akin to Satan’s famous aphorism from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “For it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”  I say this with all the Reformed theology in my bones as one who affirms God’s sovereignty in all things, understands depravity as the result of being deprived of God’s grace in a broken world and twisting that which is good into a disordered and not ordered form of love.  To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

Is there Hell? Scripture and the tradition of the Church says that this is as real as the world in which we live.  In fact, Christ is fairly pointed in declaring that perhaps Hell is already here and we have a chance to do something about it for folks who are living in this very real and not imagined Hell everyday… and not merely blogging about it.  In this regard I believe in Hell because I can see, taste and touch its stench all around me in the lives of the marginalized and down-trodden, the broken hearts and afflicted, the ironic and the nihilistic.  To that end my thoughts on whether Hell is real have more to do with the hope and prayer that by the time we catch up to the action of Revelation 20 that God has already put into play that Hell will be as empty as freakin’ possible and that Satan and all the demons will be left alone and tormented by the reality of a cross that stands in their midst as well… a cross that is not impotently framed on a wall like an IKEA wall hanging but holds the door open for all time so that all who seek entrance to this place of separation have to try and get by it first.

As Scot McKnight wisely stated, this whole cyber spat will probably just blow over by the time we go to work on Monday and that is a shame in some regards since what we believe does matter… and it certainly matters more than making arguments about a book nobody has even read yet.

So… what are your thoughts on all this? Does it matter? Why or why not?

One of the challenges I face as a theologian working with educators in the public school system is helping teachers discover courage and hopefully a passion for engaging students in a life of the spirit as much as a life of the mind.  This is no easy task.  Teachers in elementary and secondary schools are under huge pressure to ‘teach for the test’ and constantly assessing students in ways that focus attention on skill acquisition without the time nor resources to adequately engender a reason and purpose for the life they are living.

One of my conversation partners is Parker Palmer who for years has sought to bridge the gap in educational theory with a deep concern for the spiritual in student’s development.  Palmer’s background is notable: he has a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley, has taught in both public schools and higher education, and is a Quaker which speaks to his framing his thoughts in a contemplative (‘consider the space of teaching’) rather than declaratory (‘here are five things to do in your classroom to make sure student succeed’) mode.  He is currently heading up the Center for Courage & Renewal which works with organizations to align “our lives and our work with renewed passion, commitment, and integrity.” Because Palmer approaches these questions as a contemplative himself,  this can be confounding to be sure and many of my students in the School of Education struggle with him – “does Palmer expect us to enact something here in the classroom? Where is the concrete amidst the abstract?”     Much of this is based on his premise that we live in a tension between the contemplative life vs. an active life – two primary modes of living that are in tension in modern culture and not merely the classroom. As he explores in his book “To Know as We Are Known” and some other books such as “The Courage to Teach”, he holds that in earlier centuries contemplation was the preferred life, one followed by academic or religious scholars through the medieval period until the rise of the scholastic period.  As Palmer would state, an “active life” was one of tedious toil where one did not have the time to reflect on a higher plane of existence. Over time that changed. An “active life” (he wrote a book entitled “The Active Life” which gets at this thesis) became more prominent as technology progressed and the power associated with it.  A pendulum effect between the two – active vs. contemplative – has swung back again as limits to technology have not provided a solution and the lure of a contemplative life and its seclusion has taken hold.  In short, this has resulted in the “why” questions have been replaced with the “how” questions especially in our classrooms.  The demands of ‘teaching for the test’  have created a culture of busyness and frantic skills assessment with little to no time given to what these ‘skills’ are for in our society and how they fund what it means to be a human being.   For some of my students, they are frustrated because Palmer is not forwarding his point based on the strict adherence to social scientific method which holds that which is to be considered ‘true’ as correlating with quantitative methods that can be measured via statistical analysis. No, Palmer is speaking from a more qualitative stream of reflection which does go back to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and continues on through humanities and the arts: a more existential reflection on the human condition and (for the sake of his books) and exploration of the spiritual as a vital part to deep education.  He is inviting us to essentially go inward – the contemplative life – and sit in the space of quiet with our students and creates spaces for contemplation on the reasons to life in addition to the skills and tasks of living.  As those sitting in his books and lectures, the dominant challenge for what is means to be human in our 21st century age is take seriously our vocation – our calling – and live the life we were always meant to live and to live this full life in front of our students in a holistic manner.  Teachers have been forced into becoming information Pez dispensers – spitting out facts and figures and methods without context nor purpose to test and therefore ‘assess’ with reliability that students are learning.

Do you think that he has a point?

Have we lost something in the education of our children in the elevation of the ‘active’ life over the ‘contemplative’ life?

There is something I need to get off my back.   One of the topics I realized recently that I haven’t dialogued about on the blog is where I find myself theologically – in short, what I believe about God.  People I am around are usually trending toward one of three vectors:

(1) Those for whom some abstracted religious exploration animates their everyday life and touches on some aspect or combination of themes drawn from fairly traditional religious traditions.  In this I am fortunate beyond belief to have such a wide range of friends and colleagues who represent just about every imaginable belief system under the sun: atheists, religious libertarians, agnostics, fundamentalists of every stripe, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, reformed and orthodox Jews, and one friend who calls herself a Zoroastrian but only because she didn’t know what else to put in the “religious views” section of her Facebook profile and thought it sounded cool.

(2) Another group of folks would be the majority of the people I swim around with day to day:  people who would call themselves Christians of one persuasion or another: cultural and devote Catholics, liturgically geeky Lutherans, heady Pentecostals, loads of Methodists of every stripe, herds of self-described non-Denominational folks and Evangelical types, and thoughtfully Biblio-centric Episcopalians who dig on KEXP.org, the Bible, and vestments that smell of incense.

(3)  The last group are a jumble sale of secularists of every stripe – those blissfully indifferent to spiritual things (“whatever floats your boat”) or product-centric consumers enraptured with the transcendence of buying things where the warehouse sales  and 1-click web purchases take the luminous place of grand cathedrals and daily devotions due for the pious or politicos whose sense of justice and human potential is best met in Ira Glass aphorisms, reading Harpers in indie cafes, and populating FB status updates with stump quotes linked to key broadsheet periodicals.

No one is a purist in this life and all who find home in Western culture is tainted (for better or worse) by all three vectors – religious seeking writ wide and abstract, the blessing and curse of Christianity’s dominance in culture, and secularism found in government, consumerism and indifference ebbs and flows through most everyone life.

I too am a composite located in the midst of these vectors – a theological geocache of sorts – and yet still frame much of my heritage around my work as a theologian and, more specifically, a Presbyterian.  This Scottish tradition of the Reformation holds a particular view on Christianity and culture at large.

Much of why I am a member of the PC (USA) is summed up in the following three areas of theological focus – the three ‘C’s of Presbyterianism:

I. Christ centered – meaning making finds its center in the Christ event

Presbyterians have a theology that places all of life in the hands of God.  While this is in no way distinctive in the religious marketplace, the notion and vital position of God’s sovereignty is the cornerstone of Reformed Theology after John Calvin and a key orienting concern for my tradition.  The geocache of this is the movement of God’s reconciling presence within humanity through the incarnate life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that God is intimately involved in the details of daily human life as seen in the incarnate Christ (Emmanuel = God with us) and continuing the in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We recognize how easy it is for people to place idols of all kinds in the place of God (Calvin called human beings “idol making factories”), to worship many things before the worship of God. As a result of this assertion, Presbyterians hold that humanity has a predilection to sinful behavior – a desire to be isolated and removed from God (Sinatra’s “I’m going to do it my way” is the modern version of John Milton’s notion of Satan’s fall from grace framed in the exclamation “it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”). However, the truth of this is not the entirety of our lot in this life:  at the same time humanity strives toward isolation Presbyterians assert that we also hold that humanity is loved and forgiven by God in ways that are inexplicable, undeserved and utterly surprising. God’s grace  is the cause of our daily renewal and therefore we – all of humanity – is invited to live in the fullness of hope and mercy regardless of our desire to be in isolation.  All we have to do is accept the invitation to love – to be loved and to return this love with an intimacy that is found between where a vine grows and binds itself to a branch. In all of this, as the reformer Martin Luther described himself, Presbyterians hold that we are “justus et peccator”, “made righteous and yet a sinner.”

Presbyterians ground much of our thinking in this regard in our structure of governance – that if how we choose to worship, to gather in community, to support one another, to love the world and sacrifice for the sake of others.  Where some Christian sub-traditions are named and therefore framed around a personality (John Wesley for Wesleyans, Martin Luther for Lutherans) – Presbyterians are akin to Episcopalians and Catholics by framing the tradition around its governance structure.  One document that holds us accountable to is the Book of Order which articulates these key theological values: God alone is the Lord of the conscience. That is, people, being prone to error, are going to be wrong a good portion of the time. Conscience cannot be coerced by any human agency, but only persuaded by God. All power in a Christian body, we believe, is persuasive.

Another way that Presbyterians keep this Christ centeredness core is through worship that is renewed yet traditional – we worship together using new music and old music, new prayers and old prayers, new ways and old ways, using the freedom given to us by our Book of Order.  Preaching and teaching is a big deal and for some Presbyterians get a bit heady in their worship services.  Education has always been a high value from the Scottish reformation (Scotland has four universities founded in the later medieval period while England had only two) and as such this is a tradition that places a high value on preaching that stimulates our minds and moves our hearts, instructs as well as inspires.

Presbyterians are a ‘big tent’ tradition in that we hold (as our system gives us the freedom to hold) a variety of views on scriptural authority and theology, yet we are one community, united around the grace and love of God demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  One of the things I greatly appreciate is how diverse our tradition is… even when it is difficult to be in the same room together.  Yet isn’t that how family is?

II. Creedal

Presbyterians govern themselves by a constitution, based on our Reformed theology that gives  us direction and insight for doing things “decently and in order.” This constitution contains the historic and ecumenical confessions of faith of the church from the earliest days of Christianity (The Book of Confessions) including the Apostles and Nicene Creeds which join us to the Church universal.  This creedal affirmation is not to replace Scripture nor denounce our personal and corporate experiences of God, but likened to a lens, it gives us clarity in reading the fullness of our lives and only helps to frame the Scriptures and traditions of the Church better.  This also is to help frame the rules for the day to day business of being the church outlined in the The Book of Order which I mentioned previously.

III. Connectional

Lastly, Presbyterians do not try to be the church all on our own in their local gatherings, but are connected together in a web of relationships that extends accountability to the larger church. Likened to concentric rings emanating outward from a rock hitting the water that once they hit the shore return in waves back toward the center, our sense of community in local churches reaches out to the larger family of believers and the larger collective is always viewing its business in light of the local congregation.  A collection of churches in a region are joined together as a Presbytery. Each congregation in the region sends its pastors and elects Elders to represent it at Presbytery meetings which occur every other month on average. As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament I serve as part of Seattle Presbytery and also participate in the life of my church – North Creek Presbyterian. A collection of Presbyteries in a region are joined together as a Synod. Each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it at Synod assemblies and there is a nationwide General Assembly to which each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it (the General Assembly – or GA – is occurring in July 2010).   Rather than a system of endless committees and administrative nightmare (which some people see our church tradition as being… and at times guilty of!) this is a system that provides the means of accountability at all levels. There is always in place an approved method of dealing with disputes, complaints, unhappiness and inappropriate behavior by officers and/or members.

One of the things I celebrate most about the PC(USA) is that we have a form of government that encourages us to be the “Priesthood of all Believers.” We are a representative democracy, electing our leaders in administration, spirituality, and service on a regular basis. In fact, the form of government of the United States of America is based so heavily on the Presbyterian form of government that at the time of the Revolutionary War, the King of England was known to have called it the “Presbyterian rebellion.”

We are one of the few denominations that ordain lay people, thus placing our clergy and our laity on an absolutely equal footing. We ordain people to the office of Elder (or Presbyter, from the Greek) to be leaders in spirituality and administration. We ordain people to the office of Deacon to be leaders in service. We ordain people to the office of Pastor to be preachers, teachers, and administrators of the sacraments. We are a denomination that has ordained artists, writers and musicians to their respective callings for the service of God’s people. All our ordinations are equal and all are for life.  The fact that I serve a denomination that sees the manifold ministries of the Gospel broadly expressed and corporately supported in such incarnations as children’s television (Fred Rogers of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was a PC(USA) minister) to novelists (Frederick Buechner) brings me joy.

What about you?

Where do you trend on these three vectors I described in the beginning?

In my classes this week I have reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan and have to admit being a bit taken aback that what I am offering as a reading of the text seems foreign to students.  As such, I thought I would put some of these thoughts out here in the Theology Kung Fu dojo and let you reflect on this reading.

This text beginning in verse 25 of Luke 10 comes after Jesus has thanked the Father for hiding “these things” from “the wise and the intelligent” (10:21), and now a “lawyer,” whom we would think is wise and intelligent, comes to test Jesus. Will he “get the picture” or will it be hidden from him? Just before the lawyer arrives, Jesus has blessed his disciples for seeing what they have seen and hearing what they have heard. In the parable, both the religious leaders and the Samaritan “see” the man in the ditch (vv. 31, 32, 33), but who really “sees” him?

This text should not be studied in isolation from what follows — the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42).  An interesting contrast is presented with these two texts. The lawyer asks, “What must I do? (v. 25) and he is told twice to “continually do this” (vv. 28 & 37 — present tense in Greek — all poieo – the same word used by Jesus in the call to the Lord’s supper). This emphasis on “doing” could easily become the “busy-ness” of Martha, even though “poieo” is not used of her work, but more “religious” words for “service” or “ministry” — diakonia/diakoneo both used in v. 40 (“tasks” and “do work” in NRSV). This “doing-ness” is in contrast to the “continual listening” (imperfect in Greek) of Mary (v. 39). In both stories there are unexpected actions — a Samaritan who cares and helps a Jewish man; and a woman who sits as a disciple and listens and learns. The Samaritan is told to “go and do likewise,” while Mary is praised for not going and doing. The Samaritan shows us about loving our neighbor. Mary shows us about loving our Lord. Both are vital in living our lives Christianly.

In 10:25, Luke uses a more technical term for “lawyer” (nomikos, related to the word for “law” = nomos) rather than “scribe,” who were also considered experts in the law. Six of the nine times this word for lawyer is used in the NT they are in Luke. The only time it is used previous to our text, we are told: “But by refusing to be baptized by him [John], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). The image of “lawyers” does not improve through the gospel (11:45, 46, 52; 14:3). The reader would already be a bit suspect of a “lawyer” coming to Jesus.

We are also told that he comes “to test” (ekpeirazo) Jesus. The only other time this word is used in Luke it is Jesus’ quote to the devil: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:12).  What is this lawyer doing to Jesus? If we take seriously the image of inheriting, we may think that the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is ridiculous. It is akin thinking that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates’ fortune — or even the fortunes of a less wealthy (but much older) person. An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.

Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with two questions of his own. “In the law (nomos), what has been written? How do you read?” I have discussions with my students at SPU where it has been easy to agree on “what has been written,” but the interpretive question, “how do you read?” or “how do you interpret?” has caused great differences. In looking up the Greek word for read (anaginosko), the lexicons suggest that reading was always done aloud and generally publicly. Jesus does this in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16). Jesus’ second question might mean “How do you understand it?” but it may also go further and imply, “How do you interpret the law to others?”

The lawyer answers with the twice-daily repeated shema from Dt 6:5 which is the core law of the Torah — except that he adds “mind” or “understanding” to the Hebrew text “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”– and he includes a command from Lv 19:18 about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. (See also the “great commandment” passages: Mk 12:28-34 and Mt 22:34-40 where the question is asked by a nomikos) According to most sources, these two commandments were not combined prior to the time of Christ.

Jesus first responds with a very mainline denominational answer, “You answered rightly (orthos from which we get ortho-doxy). The lawyer knows the right answer. He has “read” the Torah rightly.  Jesus then responds with a very unPresbyterian answer, “Keep on doing (here we have the use of poieo again, this time in the present tense = denoting continuous or repeated actions) this and you will live.” Does this imply that one can inherit eternal life by “doing” the law — by loving God and neighbor as one’s self? Do works count?

The short answer is “Yes, works count” — if one is trying to “justify one’s self,” which is what the lawyer is seeking to do. First of all, by asking what he might do to inherit eternal life, and secondly, by the comment in v. 29 and the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Fuller NT scholar Joel Green in his commentary on The Gospel of Luke interprets the question this way:

Whereas Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain had eliminated the lines that might be drawn between one’s “friends” and one’s “enemies,” this legal expert hopes to reintroduce this distinction. He does so by inquiring “Who is my neighbor?” — not so much to determine to whom he must show love, but so as to calculate the identity of those to whom he need not show love. By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question: in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries. [p. 426]

Another way of phrasing the question posed by the lawyer is this:  Lawyer: “What is the limit of my responsibility?”  Jesus’ answer: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? Then you will see that love’s demand knows no limit.”  A sin of the lawyer is that he is only concerned about himself. What I do to get myself ahead religiously? This is in contrast to the (despised) Samaritan in the parable who expresses his concern for the other person.

In this text to take literally the meaning of “neighbor,” which in Greek (as well as Hebrew and English) has the basic of meaning of “to be near”.  “Neighbors” are those people who live next door — the nearest people in the “neighborhood.”  Looking then at the three responses to the man in the ditch, the Greek verb used of the first two is antiparerchomai, (vv. 31, 32) which literally has three parts:

erchomai = to go; par(a) = by; anti = on the other side

In contrast, the verb with the third man is proserchomai (v. 34) which literally has two parts:

erchomai = to go; pros = to

Also, drawing near to someone is not the sole definiation of neighbor.  Another form of erchomai is used of the robbers “falling upon” the traveler. Both the robbers and the Samartian “draw near” to this “certain person”.  What is different is how they draw near and for what reason.   Clearly, the answer to the question, “Who is the one who comes near (or is neighbor)?” It has to be the third person. The other two widened the distance between themselves and the man in the ditch. They would not come near to him. They would not be neighbor to him. The third comes near.

“KEEP DOING LIKEWISE” — Towards a Constellation of Hospitality

Probably the most common understanding of this text is that we are to act like the Samaritan in the text, rather than the priest or the Levite. He “sees” and “has compassion” (splagchnizomai) on the needy person in the ditch. He “cares” (epimelo – v. 34) for the man in the ditch. He also asks the innkeeper to “care” (epimelo – v. 35). The Samaritan doesn’t provide all of the direct aid to the needy man. He is also described by the lawyer as the one “doing mercy” (poieo to eleos). The verbs used with the Samaritan are worth emulating: to have compassion others; to come (near) to others; to care for others; to do mercy to others. It is not enough just to know what the Law says, one must also do it. To put it another way, it is not enough just to talk about “what one believes,” but “what difference does it make in my life that I believe.”

In addition, the description of the robbers’ work on the dead man indicate that there would be no identifying marks about his status, his occupation, his race. How would the lawyer (or the Samaritan) know if this half-dead man was a neighbor or not? He is a person who needs a neighbor.

Who will respond? Who will come near?

Note also that the Samaritan acts not to receive anything for himself (like self-justification). He responds to the needs of the man in the ditch and his actions cost him — time and money.

A question that needs to be asked, especially with this interpretive approach to the parable, is “Why a Samaritan?”

The idea of being a “Good Samaritan” is so common in our culture, that most people today don’t realize that “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient Israeli war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the “true” Jews. They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Previously in Luke 9, the Samaritans had refused to welcome Jesus — the “bad” Samaritans. Note that the lawyer never says “Samaritan.” He can’t call him a “good Samaritan” (a phrase that doesn’t occur in the text). Anyway, we are still left with the question, “Why a Samaritan?”

If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch.

Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.

If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman — an ordinary Jew — in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew.  If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.

One answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” is that Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don’t profess Christ.  Can we learn about “acting Christianly” from AA for example?

This approach highlights some of the Luke’s themes: Since the man in the ditch had been stripped of anything that might identify him by social class, or perhaps even nationality; he is helped simply because he is a person in need. There should be no distinctions about whom we are to help. In addition, the help involved the use of one’s resources. For Luke, wealth is not necessarily evil, it depends upon how it is used.

Another answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” and the biggest challenge in this text for me is that – in the end –  we are not to identify with the Samaritan as the only person Jesus is pointing to for the listener to emulate.   This is probably the biggest challenge to most readings of the parable I think needs to be reflected upon.  A Jew would find that so distasteful that he couldn’t identify with that person. He wouldn’t want to be like the Priest or Levite in the story, so that leaves the hearer with identifying with the man in the ditch as well as see the role that the innkeeper plays in creating a space where hospitality can and does take place.

When Jesus tells the Lawyer to “do likewise” at the end of the parable, he does not exclusively identify the Samaritan.  Rather, the Lawyer says that the one who exhibits mercy is the one we are to turn to.  To that end, we have a constellation of three – the Samaritan, the one in the ditch, and the innkeeper – to point to.  The Samaritan outreach, the one in the ditch who received care and allowed himself to be cared for, and the innkeeper who open a space for reconciliation and healing to forge in grace.  To point only to the Samaritan is to support the move of most Americans who see mercy coming in a one-to-one correspondence without the assistance and support of others.  Also, if we do not see that in some capacity we are also called to be willing – like the one in the ditch – to receive support from another person… perhaps even perhaps offering the face of salvation in a form that is from a racial, cultural dislocating place and will we be willing to receive help and healing from one that is not ‘one of us’.  Lastly, we need to see the role of the innkeeper – the one who opens space for this community building moment to take place – as vital for mercy and grace to awaken and be seen in the world.  At any given time, we are called to these three roles and all are part of discipleship in the world.

The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must at times get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy – Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable’s World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only those who need grace can receive grace.

Think back to Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7 and the Sermon on the Plain earlier in Luke chapter 6.  Jesus makes a list of all those who are blessed – Markarios – in the Kingdom of God.  Those who are hungry, those who weep, those who are poor.  What ultimately makes them blessed is that they know they need someone other than themselves to live.  They are in need – therefore they can allow someone into their lives at a deep and profound level.  This is what Jesus is pushing the lawyer with by putting the view of the Kingdom from the ditch.

A Jew who was excessively proud of his blood line and a chauvinist about his tradition would not permit a Samaritan to touch him, much less minister to him. In going from Galilee to Judea, he would cross and recross the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria. The parable therefore forces upon its hearers the question: who among you will permit himself or herself to be served by a Samaritan? Who among you is ready to open your home as the Innkeeper to allow reconciliation to happen for others? In a general way it can be implied that only those who have nothing to lose by so doing can afford to do so. But note that the victim in the ditch is given only a passive role in the story. Permission to be served by the Samaritan is thus inability to resist. Put differently, all who are truly victims, truly disinherited, have no choice but to give themselves up to mercy. The despised half-breed has become the instrument of grace: as listeners, we should choke on the irony.

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be reduced to two propositions:

– In the Kingdom of God mercy comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes.

– Mercy always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it.

One might attempt to reduce these two sentences to one:

In the kingdom… mercy is always a surprise.

The problems with the lawyer is that he couldn’t see God as possibily coming in the form of that whom he perceives to be his enemy, or that he was so weak as to need saving, or would even be called to offer hospitality to those who would be beyond saving. He hadn’t recognized the depth of his own sinfulness. (He wants to justify himself and probably had a bit of pride that comes along with that.) He was too strong and healthy. He assumes that he has the ability to do something to inherit eternal life. He assumes that he can do something to justify himself. He is not helpless in the ditch. He doesn’t need God’s grace.

When the lawyer realizes that “the one who had mercy on him” is the true neighbor – Jesus tells him to “Go and do – pioete – likewise”.   Don’t merely live your life as a checklist of the Law, rather – live your life as poetry – with passion and depth and humility as the unique, unrepeatable miracles you are.  This challenge, to live with a view from the ditch – that although we have been battered and bruised in this life there is One who offers compassion – but are we ready to accept all that this entails?

Jesus will draw this together as he challenges his disciples, on the night that He was sentenced to death, to remember him by “doing – poiete – this in remembrance of Him.”

As I teach Postmodern Theology at Fuller Seminary this quarter, I am reminded that so much of what is shifting in current discussions surrounding what constitutes ‘faith’ is a deep concern for the sake of the poor and the marginalized in our world.  The outpouring of support these past few days for Haiti, the constant desire to end human trafficking, the desire to return to the first impulses of the Reformers – to say once again that if the Christian faith is anything then it is deeply practical and bound up in God’s care and longing to reconcile a broken and battered world.  This is not a God of Deism that sits far off, indifferent to the cries of captivity, loss, mourning, joy, and wonder.  No, a generation is arising that so deeply cares about what it means to live and breath each moment of the day that they are willing to sacrifice everything – job security, church traditions, safe zip codes of comfort – just to taste it once before they die.  These are members of the community of loving defiance amidst the comfortable clubs of conformity that fill our web searches and reality shows.

One of the writers I continue to come back to and think has been lost in the Emergent swelling of writers is Millard Erickson.  Erickson was ahead of the curve prior to the wave of Emergent folks who blossomed in popularity in the last 10 years and I think needs to be re-read.  One book that is quite compelling is The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology (Baker Books, 1997).

In it Erickson surmises the shift from evangelicalism as a movement toward a “post-conservative evangelical theology” which is marked by the following characteristics:

* Eagerness to engage in dialogue with nonevangelical theologians. Indeed, “they seek opportunities to converse with those whom conservative evangelicals would probably consider enemies.”  In particular Erickson refers to liberal and catholic theologians.

* Concern with theology’s domination by white males and Eurocentrism. Recognizing the influence of social location on theological work, postconservatives seek to include women, persons of color, and Third World Christians in theological scholarship.

* Broadening of the sources used in theology. This frequently includes an emphasis on “narrative-shaped experience” rather than “propositional truths enshrined in doctrines.” The sources may include, in addition to the Bible, Christian tradition, culture, and contemporary Christian experience.

* A discontent with the traditional ties of evangelical theology to the “evangelical Enlightenment,” especially common sense realism. Rejection of the “wooden” approach to Scripture, in favor of regarding it as “Spirit-inspired realistic narrative.”

* An open view of God, in which God limits himself and enters into relationships of genuine response to humans, taking their pain and suffering into himself. God is a risk-taker, not one who controls everything so that nothing contrary to his desires can occur.

* An acceptance, rather than a rejection, of the realm of nature. Nature, although fallen, is never abandoned by grace, which then pervades it.

* A hope for a near-universal salvation as far as access to God’s grace. God has not left himself without a witness in all cultures, sufficient to bring people to salvation if they earnestly seek it.

* An emphasis in Christology on the humanity of Jesus. While retaining belief in the divinity of Christ, this is thought of more in relational than in substance and person categories.

* A more synergistic understanding of salvation. These theologians are, overall, more Arminian than Calvinistic.

* A rejection of triumphalism with respect to theological truth-claims. Postconservatives are critical of belief in epistemological certainty and theological systems.

What do you think of Erickson’s points?  Given that Erickson wrote this over a decade ago, did he sum things up well and what did he miss as we enter the next decade of the 21st century?

There are have been proclamations, rants, even celebrations by some that with the fall in church attendance across the mainline Christian denominations that the days of “going to church” are quickly coming to an end.  By this I mean the days of packing the family up in the car and driving to a Sunday morning worship service, perhaps Sunday school and fellowship hall gatherings over burned coffee and cookies fresh out of a box.  To this bit of Americana I would have to agree – the days of this picture are fading faster than a Polaroid on a bulletin board (note: given that Kodak is discontinuing the Polaroid line, this metaphor is ironically fading out as well).

Is this such a bad thing? Well, a number of post-church (aka ’emergent’) folks have been banging this drum for most of the late 1990’s and into the current century and have made quite a nice living on book deals and speaking gigs that have stirred the dismay and questioned the notion of “church” as a modernist construct to the point of people gathering around their books and conferences rather than as collectives of the Body of Christ.  Those who attend many of these “we are different” and”embrace Otherness” and  “not your father’s Christianity” and “meaning as Twitter feed”  gatherings seem to keep coming and the folks who put them on are able to pay their mortgages so something is working, right?   (btw –  many so-called ’emergent’ folks will ‘hate on’ this alignment of “emergent” = “post-church”… but emergent folks hate on any label… kinda cute actually…)

That said, my worry goes deeper than the business models of the so-called ‘different without a Creed’ gatherings.  My worry is that ultimately ‘the Church is Christ in the world’ (a phrase stated rather boldly by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)  and as such has such a brutally fractured presence in the world that it resembles the torn apart corpse of the Levites concubine in Judges 19-22 (if you are interested in this troubling section of the Hebrew Bible that is never preached on and not found in any lectionary, my colleague Frank Spina provides a great lecture on iTunesU available here)

What is left of the presence of the church other than torn apart, sun-bleached and picked over chunks of flesh and bone fragments as Christians continue to passively participate in ever-shrinking circles of affinity that rarely engage a larger conversation that could mean the end of their perspective and the beginning of some new relationship?

This is the question that is driving my book project entitled “The Z factor” which is a meditation on the words of the Minor Prophets and in particular the book of Zechariah.  It is something I have been musing over for a while and feel that it is time to kick start the project again.  I will be posting thoughts on it over the coming weeks and look forward to your contributions and help in musing these questions over…

Organizational guru and motivational speaker Steven Covey challenges individuals to “work to live, not live to work”.  Catchy aphorism to be sure, but hard to live out.  I just finished teaching a class in the MBA program at SPU that caused me to do some thinking on the issue of how and why people choose the work that they do.  A student in my class last night – the last class mind you – raised her hand and asked “Throughout this class, you have said that we should seek jobs that are fulfilling, that will serve the needs of the broken in our world, that will have a mission statement that we can support – is it realistic to find such a position when entering the workforce or do we settle with any entry level position?”  Great question to be sure.  My immediate answer was “yes”.  That said, the challenge is more to do with a willingness to wait for the goal and do the things in the mean time that will allow space for the goal to be realized.  This might mean changing my lifestyle a bit to allow me to work for next to nothing so I can do an internship and gain the experience necessary to fulfill the long term goal and not merely accept the short term gains of a better salary so I can buy a house, car, new clothes, etc.  This ‘down-sizing’ for the sake of the long term is a difficult and counter cultural choice.

I just finished teaching a 10 day intensive for Fuller Seminary on Christian Ethics.  As an exercise in community, intensives have always felt like a parody in many ways – akin to the ‘new car smell’ that car companies spray into the seats of cars before they roll off the assembly line… smells real but is far from it.  Granted, I know that teaching flexible format courses – online, distance learning, intensives – is just a reality of the current situations that most students find themselves in as they attempt to balance classes, working to pay for classes, and families and friends and ministries they are enmeshed in.  That said – as a faculty member teaching these classes – I find the experience terribly draining spiritually and psychologically as I try to get through difficult material in a timely manner yet still allow space for the engagement of deep and abiding learning in light of ministry.  I am a teacher (like many teachers) who desires to know my students and teach to the space in which they find themselves called to.  Spending 10 days with them focused on plowing through ethically challenging questions doesn’t give much room for that.  Many of the challenges we had together as a class would have been alleviated if we had simply spent time getting to know each other at some level, learned to trust one another, and then entered into these complex questions of poverty, just war theory, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc.    True, we may have emerged with the same disagreements and unanswered questions as we did this week.  But as opposed to seeing the questions as unaswered, the depth of relationship would have framed them as open questions to continue journeying through.

I pray that the students find some community to wrestle with these difficult questions and wish I could continue to the journey with them, but the week is done and so is our context.

Go with God, my friends.  Journey well…

Ray Oldenburg, the sociologist who famously coined the phrase “third places, or “great good places,” as being those public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. As Oldenburg notes in his book The Great Good Place, most people ocntinually move between three distinct places or zones of meaning-making: first places (home) and second places (work) dominate peoples concern and are mediated and at times sustained by third places: locales that allow people to put aside their sectarian concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them.  As Oldenburg states, third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”  Examples of these ‘third places’ has literally sprung forth from the rubble of reaganomics in the 1980’s and sustained in many ways the dot.com boom and bust of the 1990’s: beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices, and other third places are the heart of a community’s social vitality and the foundation of a functioning democracy.

“Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.”

It is no suprize that Evangelicalism amidst the church growth frenzy of the 1980’s saw the notion of ‘third place’ as a call to arms:  people need to gather and talk!  We shall build large, sanctified third places!  We shall provide coffee!  We shall provide bookstores!  We shall offer line dancing and yoga and colorful childcare areas filled with optimism!

But Oldenburg’s call to creating a third place for people to gather, to dialogue, to meet ‘others’ on a neutral ground with our sectarian differences left at the door is not what many church plants have created nor fought for.  Rather, many so-called ‘third place’ churches have draw up plans and focus born of the shopping mall phenomenon rather than a truly open space for meaning-making.  As Oldenburg puts it:

“Totally unlike Main Street, the shopping mall is populated by strangers. As people circulate about in the constant, monotonous flow of mall pedestrian traffic, their eyes do not cast about for familiar faces, for the chance of seeing one is small. That is not part of what one expects there. The reason is simple. The mall is centrally located to serve the multitudes from a number of outlying developments within its region. There is little acquaintance between these developments and not much more within them. Most of them lack focal points or core settings and, as a result, people are not widely known to one another, even in their own neighborhoods, and their neighborhood is only a minority portion of the mall’s clientele.”

Haunting but true – to walk into the sprawling narthexes in most churches built in the last 20 years is to enter a mall of unbridled consumerism: focus is drawn to the walls and walls of pre-fab seminars cut and pasted off websites that don’t identify the hurts and longings of the community in which it hangs.  As such, the experiment is running out of steam as evidenced by the fact that these neo-third place churches are emptying by the week and people are simply not coming back.

The big question:  where are they going…?

Stay tuned…

Of the top five things that factor into my sense of ‘being’ is the strange reality that I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Even writing about it feels odd akin to discovering that you are actually adopted or better yet, that your entire life has actually been shaped and sustained by a force you least expected.  Think of the great plot twist in Dickens’s Great Expectations when Pip realizes after so many years that seemingly pragmatic humanist rise to fortune under his own cunning and skill only supplemented by the wealthy Miss Havisham, but was actually the result of a dark benefactor shaping his ends that he encounters as a boy: Magwitch.  Pip’s so-called self-made journey is nothing more than a (havi)sham in the end.

My life has been such a bildungsroman as well – times when I had the audacity to think that I deserved my life, that the accomplishments and failures that marked out the data points of my days were of my doing alone – that I was the egoist and ‘overman’ of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in so many ways.  Yet the truth is that I am not so much an architect nor a cartographer worth of this sojourn by any means.  No, the reality is that God is very much a reality and my vocation has been bound to who God is for quite some time akin to what the Gospel of John sees as the intimacy and fury of a fruit bearing branch engrafted to a deeply rooted vine.

It is not an easy vocation by any means and the further I can ‘into’ it (I was ordained in 1995) the more mysterious and just plain weird it all is.

I am currently reading Charles Taylor’s magnum opus A Secular Age this summer – a sprawling 800+ page tome that seeks to locate the contours, valleys and peaks of this so-called ‘Secular Age’ in relation to the West.  No one is better suited for this challenge to be sure than Taylor.  In the introduction he speaks of his task as essentially’re-telling the story of the West, as he puts it “to get straight where we are, we have to go back and tell the story properly.” (29)  Part of the story Taylor wants to tell is that over 2,000 years the issue of God’s Death (after William Hamilton, Tom Altizer) or ‘Dying’ (think the Victorian anxiety surrounding Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach as the ‘Sea of Faith’ recedes into the distance) is vastly overstating the condition of modernity.  God is not retreating from the public sphere – what Taylor terms the ‘subtraction’ theory in that God is being pulled out of discourse inch-by-inch as Fox News would have us believe.  Rather, according to Taylor, God is very much still a core component of society and continues to be so.  Now I am not going to redact the 800+ pages of his tome (it is certainly worth the read though!) but he does paint a compelling argument.  Sooo… why am I rambling on about Charles Taylor in reference to the vocation of pastor? The fact is that as long as society continues to seek and be sought by a very ‘real’ God, the more I will be found in the mix of the conversations and silences that follow waiting for the still, small voice to nudge us yet again – the rough beast of WB Yeats’ ‘Second Coming‘ slouching ever so nearer and nearer toward Jerusalem to be born among us yet again…jeff with stoll - wedding