Monthly Archives: May 2010

Why Johnny Can’t Preach: Collin Hansen on BibleMesh

The latest issue of Christianity Today has a great article on cutting-edge discipleship material that seeks to address the lack of theological and biblical knowledge in the church.  Entitled “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” and written by CT’s Collin Hansen, the piece sheds light on BibleMesh, an online discipleship tool that I have mentioned before (and for which I write).

Hansen sums up the contemporary problem:

Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition. Or, as George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli said in a widely quoted survey finding, “Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don’t read it.”

He offers some words on computer-based Christian training:

Computer technology has long been a boon to high-level biblical studies. Scholars can instantly search archives of ancient manuscripts, essentially turning their offices into world-class libraries. Pastors likewise benefit from popular software that aids original language studies and sermon preparation. But the gap is widening.

“At this rate,” Emmanuel Kampouris says, “the Bible will be just a historical artifact for seminarians.”

BibleMesh is seeking to address this major issue:

BibleMesh hopes to remedy the problem of fragmented biblical understanding with a personalized learning tool that tracks what users have studied and where they are weak. The site will help users memorize Scripture and remember facts, names, and places from the passages they have read. Another component allows pastors and small-group leaders to shape their own courses. Later channels will teach church history and biblical Greek and Hebrew.

“Every church intuitively knows it needs a discipleship program that goes beyond the preaching event,” Thornbury says. “I hope BibleMesh will be Sunday school curriculum 2.0. It’s an update on what used to be done in Sunday school: taking Christians through the Bible.”

The article then goes on to consider other special initiatives on the discipleship front, including David Platt’s efforts in Alabama to spur his congregation on in learning and living out the Bible.

This piece is encouraging; one hopes it will foster a greater understanding of various groups and movements (including BibleMesh, which debuts June 2010 with an original, Christ-centered narrative of Scripture by Tim Keller) that are seeking to build in God’s people a love for the Word that will result in transformed living and greater glory to God.

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Boys in Skirts and Marriages Under Fire: The New Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood Is Online

The newest issue of the Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (Spring 2010, Volume 15.1) has just been posted online.  It looks as provocative and useful as ever.

I’ve posted the full table of contents below; I commend all of the pieces to you.  In particular, Rob Lister’s article on how a husband can lead his marriage in a godly way looks outstanding.  So much good comes from a husband taking initiative to talk with his wife on a regular basis, especially when that conversation is designed to range over all aspects of a marriage.  I’m a very young husband, but it seems clear already that when we assume our marriages are healthy without sustained effort and discussion, we gear ourselves up for serious trouble.

Readers will also want to look for insightful writing from Al Mohler, Denny Burk, Tom Schreiner, Jim Hamilton, and Philip Bethancourt (who has a very nice review).  Read the whole thing, and gain clarity on biblical gender roles in a confused–and confusing–world.

Item Title Author
Editorial Denny Burk
Odds & Ends JBMW
Boys Wearing Skirts to School? What’s Going On? R. Albert Mohler Jr.
Marriage as It Was Meant to Be Seen: Headship, Submission, and the Gospel Jason Hall and Peter R. Schemm Jr.
“Husbands, Love Your Wives . . .” A Practical Suggestion and Tool for Husbands to Use in Leading their Marriages for the Glory of God Rob Lister
Whither Men? A Response to a Recent Barna Study on the Increase of Female Pastors in Protestant Churches Owen Strachan
Galatians 3:28: Grammar, Text, Context, and Translation Wayne Walden
Godliness and Gender: Relating Appropriately to All (1 Timothy 2:9–12) James M. Hamilton Jr.
Philip Payne on Familiar Ground Thomas R. Schreiner
Two Egalitarian Paths toward the Same Destination Ben Reaoch
A Lack of Balance Heath Lambert
Insightful but Flawed Look at Gospel Women Owen Strachan
Fatherhood Is No Accident Phillip R. Bethancourt

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The New Yorker on Jesus Christ: Messiah as “Dharma Bum” and Crucified Apocalyptist

Adam Gopnik, writer of renown at The New Yorker, has just penned one of the more engrossing cultural pieces on the person and mystery of Jesus Christ that I personally have seen in a good long while.  Entitled “What Did Jesus Do?”, it is rich, rewarding, frustrating, deeply erroneous and a must-read for those who wish to interact with modern intellectual perspective on Jesus.

Because the piece is so weighty, I am going to quote many portions of it.  If you don’t care to read all of this, that makes sense.  But if you are interested in learning a bit more about how a prominent public intellectual thinks about the God-man, read on.  Again, this didn’t run in the Christian Century, but in The New Yorker.

Gopnik looks first at how historical criticism what Jesus said:

They believe it because it seems so unlikely, so at odds with the idea that Jesus always played the star in his own show: why would anyone have said it if it weren’t true? This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded. If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.

Here’s Gopnik’s basic approach to Christianity:

The intractable complexities of fact produce the inevitable ambiguities of faith. The more one knows, the less one knows.

The author wonders what exactly it was that made Jesus’ teaching distinctive:

What the amateur reader wants, given the thickets of uncertainty that surround the garden, is not what the passionate polemicists want—not so much a verdict on whether Jesus was nasty or nice as a sense of what, if anything, was new in his preaching. Was the cult that changed the world a product of Paul’s evangelism and imperial circumstance and the military embrace of one miracle-mystery cult among many such around? Or was there really something new, something unheard of, that can help explain the scale of what happened later? Did the rise of Christendom take place because historical plates were moving, with a poor martyred prophet caught between, or did one small pebble of parable and preaching start the avalanche that ended the antique world?

Here’s how the present-day academy approaches the Gospels:

Ever since serious scholarly study of the Gospels began, in the nineteenth century, its moods have ranged from the frankly skeptical—including a “mythicist” position that the story is entirely made up—to the credulous, with some archeologists still holding that it is all pretty reliable, and tombs and traces can be found if you study the texts hard enough. The current scholarly tone is, judging from the new books, realist but pessimistic.

Gopnik blatantly informs us of the supposed fabrications of Scripture:

The odd absences in Mark are matched by the unreal presences in the other Gospels. The beautiful Nativity story in Luke, for instance, in which a Roman census forces the Holy Family to go back to its ancestral city of Bethlehem, is an obvious invention, since there was no Empire-wide census at that moment, and no sane Roman bureaucrat would have dreamed of ordering people back to be counted in cities that their families had left hundreds of years before. The author of Luke, whoever he might have been, invented Bethlehem in order to put Jesus in David’s city.

The following is noteworthy; Gopnik gives us his character sketch of Jesus (really, read the whole thing):

Even if we make allowances for Mark’s cryptic tracery, the human traits of his Jesus are evident: intelligence, short temper, and an ironic, duelling wit. What seems new about Jesus is not his piety or divine detachment but the humanity of his irritability and impatience. He’s no Buddha. He gets annoyed at the stupidity of his followers, their inability to grasp an obvious point. “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” he asks the hapless disciples….He’s verbally spry and even a little shifty. He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, perhaps by design. A story about a vineyard whose ungrateful husbandmen keep killing the servants sent to them is an anti-establishment, even an anti-clerical story, but it isn’t so obvious as to get him in trouble. The suspicious priests keep trying to catch him out in a declaration of anti-Roman sentiment: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not, they ask—that is, do you recognize Roman authority or don’t you? He has a penny brought out, sees the picture of the emperor on it, and, shrugging, says to give to the state everything that rightly belongs to the state. The brilliance of that famous crack is that Jesus turns the question back on the questioner, in mock-innocence. Why, you give the king the king’s things and God God’s. Of course, this leaves open the real question: what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? It’s a tautology designed to evade self-incrimination.

The author examines the morality of Jesus (I found this engrossing as well):

Jesus’ morality has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness. His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic. When he makes that complaint about the prophet having no honor in his own home town, or says exasperatedly that there is no point in lighting a candle unless you intend to put it in a candlestick, his voice carries a disdain for the props of piety that still feels startling. And so with the tale of the boy who wastes his inheritance but gets a feast from his father, while his dutiful brother doesn’t; or the one about the weeping whore who is worthier than her good, prim onlookers; or about the passionate Mary who is better than her hardworking sister Martha. There is a wild gaiety about Jesus’ moral teachings that still leaps off the page.

Gopnik arrestingly traces Jesus’ approach to life and people:

Jesus isn’t a hedonist or an epicurean, but he clearly isn’t an ascetic, either: he feeds the multitudes rather than instructing them how to go without. He’s interested in saving people living normal lives, buying and selling what they can, rather than in retreating into the company of those who have already arrived at a moral conclusion about themselves.

The author turns his attention to the nature of God:

In Mark, Jesus’ divinity unfolds without quite making sense intellectually, and without ever needing to. It has the hypnotic flow of dramatic movement. The story is one of self-discovery: he doesn’t know who he is and then he begins to think he does and then he doubts and in pain and glory he dies and is known. The story works. But, as a proposition under scrutiny, it makes intolerable demands on logic. If Jesus is truly one with God, in what sense could he suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, horror, and so on? So we get the Jesus rendered in the Book of John, who doesn’t. But if he doesn’t suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, and horror, in what sense is his death a sacrifice rather than just a theatrical enactment? A lamb whose throat is not cut and does not bleed is not really much of an offering.

Gopnik comments on the “twoness” of Christianity:

If one thing seems clear from all the scholarship, though, it’s that Paul’s divine Christ came first, and Jesus the wise rabbi came later. This fixed, steady twoness at the heart of the Christian story can’t be wished away by liberal hope any more than it could be resolved by theological hair-splitting. Its intractability is part of the intoxication of belief. It can be amputated, mystically married, revealed as a fraud, or worshipped as the greatest of mysteries. The two go on, and their twoness is what distinguishes the faith and gives it its discursive dynamism. All faiths have fights, but, as MacCulloch shows at intricate, thousand-page length, few have so many super-subtle shadings of dogma: wine or blood, flesh or wafer, one God in three spirits or three Gods in one; a song of children, stables, psalms, parables, and peacemakers, on the one hand, a threnody of suffering, nails, wild dogs, and damnation and risen God, on the other. The two spin around each other throughout history—the remote Pantocrator of Byzantium giving way to the suffering man of the Renaissance, and on and on.

Gopnik offers some words on the cross that will be of interest to participants in the ongoing dialogue about the center of the gospel:

Beyond the words, we still hear that cry. The Passion is still the point. In Mark, Jesus’ arrest and execution feels persuasively less preordained and willed than accidental and horrific. Jesus seems to have an intimation of the circumstance he has found himself in—leading a rebellion against Rome that is not really a rebellion, yet doesn’t really leave any possibility of retreat—and some corner of his soul wants no part of it: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take away this cup from me.”

The author concludes the piece on a very interesting note, suggesting that though scholars disagree strongly on the identity and significance of Christ, there does seem to be something resonant in His message:

The argument is the reality, and the absence of certainty the certainty. Authority and fear can circumscribe the argument, or congeal it, but can’t end it. In the beginning was the word: in the beginning, and in the middle, and right there at the close, Word without end, Amen. The impulse of orthodoxy has always been to suppress the wrangling as a sign of weakness; the impulse of more modern theology is to embrace it as a sign of life. The deeper question is whether the uncertainty at the center mimics the plurality of possibilities essential to liberal debate, as the more open-minded theologians like to believe, or is an antique mystery in a story open only as the tomb is open, with a mystery left inside, never to be entirely explored or explained. With so many words over so long a time, perhaps passersby can still hear tones inaudible to the more passionate participants. Somebody seems to have hoped so, once.

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Clearly, there is a lot to chew on here.  Those of us who are evangelical Christians might well be tempted to pass on a piece like this, writing it off as some unbeliever’s personal take on Jesus.  In one sense, this is true, and I am fundamentally in major disagreement with Gopnik.  In fact, we have essential disagreement on the most important reality in all of life.

On the other hand, it is not necessarily the case that we can’t pick up any insights from unbelievers.  I think we can.  Throughout the piece, mixed in with faulty conclusions and unhelpful generalizations (the Bible’s message, I would contend, is not nearly as mysterious and open-ended as Gopnik emphasizes), are some very rewarding ideas.  It’s valuable to read about the Bible–and Jesus, and the gospel–from the perspective of someone who does not share your theology.  Sometimes they see things that we can’t see.  Thus we should read them, and profit from them where we can.

There is a great deal to work through in this piece.   I think Gopnik has some helpful words on the teaching style, the personality, of Jesus. To put it plainly, Jesus is enigmatic.  He says surprising things.  He sometimes goes the opposite direction from what we would think.  He reformulates existing conceptions of Jesus.

In addition, Gopnik is surely right about the passion of Christ being at the center of Christianity.  This is surely true.  His words on that point bear re-reading, because even as professing Christians disagree on the centrality of the crucifixion, an urbane New Yorker with no professed affinity for substitutionary atonement sees the cross as the centerpiece of the Bible.

Gopnik has another great insight on the nature of Jesus’ mission.  The following could have been written by an evangelical theologian: “He’s interested in saving people living normal lives, buying and selling what they can, rather than in retreating into the company of those who have already arrived at a moral conclusion about themselves.”  This is surely right.

In the end, it seems to me that Gopnik gets a good deal right–sometimes movingly so–but also gets a good deal wrong (including central and essential matters).  He buys into critical scholarship on Jesus, even as he seems to realize that there is something ethereal, something majestic about the God-man.  He asks whether Jesus merely popped up at the right moment in history (and thus we find the significance of His person), yet he closes his piece by noting that there may still “tones” that can be heard from the testimony about Jesus.

Gopnik is seeing something, but only as best as one can see without faith.  In reality, Jesus’ mission and message were not enigmatic.  They were not open-ended.  Jesus was not a “dharma bum”, some kind of first-century postmodern essayist, but very wisdom itself.  He was an apocalyptist, but He was also the apocalypse.  He not only spoke of the need to get right with God, but became the very means by which sinners are made right with God.

In the end, I was startled to find a modern intellectual, writing for America’s most avant-garde publication, affirm that the cross “is still the point.”  On this point, Gopnik is right, and profoundly so.  The cross is the point.  Jesus is the messiah.  Salvation is in Him.  He was a great teacher, if a strange one; His legacy is disputed; and yet, as is plainly seen, the pages of Scripture offer, over and over again, from diverse regions and times, the message that God has provided salvation for every man in the form of the Messiah.  Gopnik does not know how right he is.

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Swagger Wagons, 9/11 Politics, and Fake Godliness

Denny Burk on “swagger wagons” is worth looking into.  The video he links to will rock your world, particularly when the dad puts on a feather boa and clears his daughter’s tea table.  Nice spoof on the strange and singular genre of rap videos (and strange and singular genre of minivans).

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Roughly nine years after 9/11, the construction on future towers continues.  The politics of the project are engrossing.  Every millimeter of space is important in NYC.

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Addressing recent comments made by UK Politican Gordon Brown (he called a woman “bigoted” after politely finishing a conversation with her), David Murray offers some great thoughts on authentic leadership and genuine character at the TGC Blog.  This is a great test of whether we have genuinely strong character or not, it seems; are we polite and even friendly to people in conversation only to turn around when we leave them and cut them down?

Sadly, I’ve found this to be somewhat common among leaders.  How wicked that we would fake niceness–often for gain–and cut others down when they’ve left.  That’s a deadly trap, one that will be difficult to spot and address on our own.  We’re all sinful and fail in many regards.  I’m reminded by this anecdote of the need to truly love people, not to love them only for what they give me.  That’s not true godliness; it’s fake.

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Why Comic Book Movies Stink (According to Salon)

Salon’s Mott Zoller Seitz just wrote a fun piece deconstructing that most ubiquitous of modern cinematic offerings: the comic book movie.  He ain’t a fan.

Here’s what he has to say about the genre, currently exploding:

The aforementioned moments are just that: moments. Dazzling fragments of films that tend to be visually adept and dramatically inert or vice versa. Even at the peak of their creative powers, big-budget comic book films are usually more alike than different. And over time, they seem to blur into one endless, roiling mass of cackling villains, stalwart knights, tough/sexy dames, and pyrotechnic showdowns that invariably feature armored vehicles (or armor-encased men) bashing into each other. When such movies accumulate praise, it’s encrusted with implied asterisks: “The best superhero film ever made,” say, or “The best Batman film since Tim Burton’s original.” If the Hollywood studio assembly line is high school in a John Hughes movie, superhero films are the jocks — benighted beneficiaries of grade inflation and reflexive fan boosterism. (Critics who don’t like a particular superhero film — any superhero film — are apt to be simultaneously blasted in online comments threads as aesthetic turistas ill-equipped to judge the work’s true depth and snooty killjoys who expect too much and need to lighten the hell up. Neat trick.)

Bad as many of these movies may be, the hits keep coming:

Meanwhile, the assembly line keeps rolling along, siphoning $100 million to $200 million per film from Hollywood’s economy to fund all that CGI, spurring the creation of ancillary merchandise that’s ultimately the real reason for any superhero film’s existence, and generating advance publicity that’s instantly transformed into free advertising by buffs, who parse each new superhero casting announcement as if there were, in fact, a character to play. (Is Chris Hemsworth the right choice to play Thor? Let’s check the requirements: 1. Be blond. 2. Swing a hammer.)

Read the whole piece (I don’t appreciate some of the language).

I have some appreciation of various comic book movies.  Sherlock Holmes was fun, for example; Robert Downey, Jr. seems to have been specially created to infuse otherwise boring blockbuster films with insouciance and fun (though I’m sure he could do much more with his talent, as Seitz says).  Spider Man 2 was also nicely done.  There are a few others.

The grandeur and spectacle of many comic book movies is appealing to many for good reasons.  Big films can tackle big topics on a big scale.  They can also, of course, be bad in a big way.  It’s interesting to note that many of these films tackle spiritual themes from a variety of angles.  Clash of the Titans, for example, had some harsh words for Christianity.

Comic book movies are a strange phenomenon–pitched to an ever-young America (in its own mind, at least), often concerned with adolescent life issues, perhaps reflecting a native human interest in God-like figures and Bible-like drama.  Many of the movies are stupid; some are memorable; a few are excellent.  Alot, however, gross lots of money–and that, after all, is what really matters.

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Southern Baptists, the Gospel, and Ronnie Floyd

Doug Baker of the Oklahoma Messenger just did an Insight vidcast with Ronnie Floyd, Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Springdale, Arkansas.  Dr. Floyd is a widely respected pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention and an architect of the Great Commission Resurgence.

To learn more about the GCR and Dr. Floyd’s reflections on it, go here.  You’ll enjoy Doug’s interview and will gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for this exciting development in the SBC.  Here’s hoping for similar gospel-driven movements in other denominations and slices of God’s church.  God really does renew His church through His Word and gospel, a matter we need to keep before us in a discouraging and broken world.

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Winston Churchill, Courage, and Other Unpopular Topics

Recently ran across an excellent little HBO movie on Winston Churchill entitled Into the Storm (2009).  Brendan Gleeson plays the British Prime Minister and won an Emmy for his work.  The movie is not fanciful or complex, but it is compelling and worth your time. 

The movie seems to have flown largely under the radar, perhaps because it centers around such old-fashioned matters as courage, perseverance, marriage, and leadership.  These aren’t the hottest subjects in some circles today.  Ignorance of them is unjust.  Unlike many contemporary fascinations of the ambient culture, courage and leadership will always matters and must always occupy our attention.  With all of his flaws, Churchill exemplifies these virtues.

Here’s what the BBC had to say about the film, which I highly commend to you:

Told through a series of carefully juxtaposed flashbacks, the film offers a fascinating portrait of this inspiring yet flawed man. His defiance, headstrong stubbornness and blinkered single-mindedness were the traits that made him a great wartime leader. The same traits meant he lost touch with the British people, resulting in him being ousted from Government within weeks of the World War II victory celebrations.

The film also explores Winston’s changing relationship with close friends and family: how the intimacy between a man and his wife is sacrificed for the sake of a greater goal. There are moments of painful poignancy when the emotional consequences for his wife, Clementine Churchill, become clear, and she is forced to lead a life in the shadow of such a personally and publicly demanding global figure.

With the benefit of hindsight, Into the Storm offers an intimate perspective on pivotal events in history. The film shows how war is not simply played out on the battlegrounds but also in the minds and hearts of people.

Order it here.  It’s only eleven bucks on Amazon, and it would be great for personal viewing, family discussion, or good old-fashioned fun.

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Thom Rainer: Suffering and Sanctification in Nashville

Thom Rainer, President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources in Nashville, has a noteworthy post up about his experiences in the recent flood in Tennessee.  With many others, my heart goes out to Rainer and his fellow southerners who have suffered.

He wrote the following in the wake of discovering much damage to his home and property:

I am now looking at the television. I am seeing the stunning shots of the ongoing devastation of Nashville. I am seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and businesses completely underwater. I am hearing of numbers of deaths in the area.

And now I have new emotions.

Why were we spared the massive devastation when others were not? Why were our losses in the tens of thousands when others lost everything?

I never asked, “Why me Lord?” when I thought we had lost all of our material possessions. I knew I had already been blessed so far beyond anything I deserved. But I was having trouble reconciling why we were spared the most devastation when others were not. I do find myself asking, “Why not me Lord?”

Read the whole thing.

I found this a convicting thought, one worthy of pondering, even as many of us aren’t going through nearly the earthly suffering that Rainer and many others are.  To see more pictures of the devastation that can inform our prayers, go here (HT: Challies).

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The Soul and Symphonies of Hip Hop

Looking through the IVP catalog the other day, this title caught my eye: The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology (IVP, June 2010).

Here’s the book’s description from Amazon:

“What is Hip Hop?

Hip hop speaks in a voice that is sometimes gruff, sometimes enraged, sometimes despairing, sometimes hopeful.

Hip hop is the voice of forgotten streets laying claim to the high life of rims and timbs and threads and bling.

Hip hop speaks in the muddled language of would-be prophets–mocking the architects of the status quo and stumbling in the dark toward a blurred vision of a world made right.

What is hip hop? It’s a cultural movement with a traceable theological center. Daniel White Hodge follows the tracks of hip-hop theology and offers a path from its center to the cross, where Jesus speaks truth.”

I don’t know much about the author, but I do know that there is plenty of room within evangelical circles for conversation about hip hop.  I’ll be looking for The Soul of Hip Hop, and hoping that it advances the conversation.  Rap is one of the more powerful mediums of musical expression when done well.  It’s not all good, it’s not all bad.

Also, if you want to check out some groundbreaking new stuff, watch the video for “Symphonies” by Kid Cudi and Dan Black.  Very interesting–a fusion of classical music and hip hop.  Though secular, it’s pretty cool stuff.  I would love to hear more music like this.

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