About Mac

Christopher MacDonald is the fun-loving subversive author, visionary and teacher behind all things AZOTUS. Author of the New book "Jesus Outed" (available via Amazon for Kindle like devices) with more books on the way. He covers a surprising array of topics ranging from in-depth textual studies, to classical studies on love, sex and relationships; human meaning and semiotics; and is somewhat of an expert on Ernest Becker and his book "The Denial of Death." Currently on assignment embedded as a joyful member of the Tent City at the Webster Tube in Oakland California, he serves at the pleasure of Hiss Lord and Master - The Risen One - as a sort of Peace Corps/Urban Missionary. He is the Creative.Managing Editor of Azotus' "The Oakland Homeless Chronicles." He is learning to VLOG. He is not paid and receives no compensation. There are no paid advertisements. No political affiliations. And no religious bullshit. It is a labor of love that comes from outside him. He has a hankering for the Word of God and handles it like a light-saber. He trains others to do exegesis if they wish to learn. There is a list of other blogs he runs and contributes to as well as full bio at spokeblog.wordpress.com.

Look & See: Wendell Berry’s Kentucky

wendellberry_movieposter_m

PBS is airing an amazing film on Wendell Berry and the Environment which just premiered on April 23rd and is available through May 7th HERE.  It is also available for those who have Netflix.

Berry, an essayist, and poet is also a farmer in rural Kentucky. The Hour-long film is well-done combining a number of stories at once within Berry’s overall life’s framework of activism, writing, raising children and farming.

Probably the most significant aspect is demonstrating the social breakdown (the fruit of industrialization and Modernization) on human souls and community that making farming and farmers simply a cog in a wheel has become. Berry gets at the spiritual and social consequences in a way that is not moralistic but is somewhat irrefutable. And it doesn’t hurt that he and his wife have been a living testaments to an enduring way of life that flies in the face of such depersonalization (her contributions to the film as fascinating as his).

Excerpts from a 1975 panel discussion show Berry unmasking the United States policies as being equal to Communist military annexations of lands – just by other means. His down-home brilliance is staggering as it has always been. The film ends with a poem of such immense beauty it will leave you in tears.

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A Call for Explorers

After decades of debate over the pervasive decline of the Church in both Europe and new the United States it seems clear that no amount of marketing, brand-specialists, new amenities and political “updating” has done anything but increase that decline. In the face of such a crisis, I humbly offer my observations gathered over four decades of carefully watching and studying this “Church in decline,” as well as recent experience and training earning a Masters in leadership that has allowed me to do actual field work in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I ask open questions which I feel can lead us in fresh directions if we are open. 

By Christopher MacDonald, Berkeley, California

The history of theology prior to Modernity had always been dominated by polemics. 90% of it had always been framed as “Against” this or that – and this is the way we have come to learn how to teach, envision and also lead even after the great divide of the 1920s when the Faith began to use polemics on itself and went downs roads of division and micro-division that have left it in a thousand tiny little pieces.

I could spend pages embodying this approach and, in the end, only add to a sense of loss, sadness and confusion as to where the Church-at-large is. I am choosing not to do this. Instead. I choose to follow precept number four and work off a “generative theology” that is creative, open, explorative, and deeply biblical. It is time we got a grip and started to move forward in faith, hope and love.

To jump ahead a bit and explain “generative theology” a bit. It is simply’ a theology based in agape love which “creates value in those it loves.” it is at once tied directly to the cross of Christ but also His resurrection and living Lordship now. It is creative and hopeful and carries with it disciplines that outwardly-imposed morality can never match. It is not based in criticising or being against others though it may find lines of clear disagreement and departure. It seeks peace and to serve through Art and Word.

The word “generative'” points to its creativity but should not be mistaken to say that it is generating a whole new fresh theology or theologies. Rather it is finally mining those rich corridors of theological ore which have been available all along but have been neglected in our seemingly unending need to tell other people where they are “wrong.” It is the unexplored country of “rightness” and beauty which scripture has always been the sole repository of. I will return to its beauty later in this presentation; but hopefully all that proceeds will be “generative.”

Focus One:Christ the Center (Theocentric over Anthropocentric worldview)

It seems that somewhere along the way ( I am guessing the Enlightenment) we shifted or adopted a larger a large anthropocentric world-view/ So much so we can hardly see that it has become the only air we breathe, our sole way of perception and our reference point. But scripture presents us with a theocentric (in many cases more specifically Christocentric) world-view. How might that deeply effect the ways we breathe in, perceive and interpret the world? What if this is, in fact, much closer to reality than any of the myriad of anthropocentric views?

A simple example from the Gospels would be Jesus’ refrain “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” (and the contrasts put forward) and His teachings on the Kingdon of God” in direct contrast with earthly kingdoms.

I would ask the reader to re-read the Gospels and ask honestly if they present a theocentric or anthropocentric worldview; and if the latter, how much are we missing by not adopting the same?

Isn’t it possible that our profound unhappiness, emptiness and even confusion in the Church isn’t just a by-product of our stepping into the central place?. Could we not all relax and more easily “accept and celebrate” our diversity of we located ourselves around a great rim whose spokes all led back to one core Center which was Christ Himself?  

I have watched while large denominations have had “Re-Imagining God” conferences. While it sounds mildly hip isn’t one core point that the God who is “other” chose to reveal God’s own Self in a way we could understand?  Isn’t “re-imagining” God while God is attempting to clearly communicate God’s own Self really at cross purposes? 

And God’s attempt has been by becoming not just sympathetic- but actually by becoming one of us in all ways even gestating in a womb for nine months.   

Of course more than this is revealed as well. God in Christ is revealed as the Center of not only Creation at its inception, but also currently (Colossians 1:15-23). He is also revealed far more as “Lord” than “Savior” – and important view as that is.that possibly explains why St. Paul would “bring every thought captive” to Him (2 Corinthians 10). There is no quarter given to an anthropocentric Gospel or even that general worldview. God does not exist for us; we exist and find our being in God.  

Jesus wants to be the Center and, indeed is so while we are not. He said:

“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Focus 2: Transformation over a “Betterment Gospel

Our crisis of theology and leadership has to do with our confusion over who we are, where we are going, and the nature of the “Good News.”

Doesn’t the Gospel, at its core, comes with an offer of rescue? Is there really any real taklk in Jesus or any of the Apostles about “betterment” of our current situation and to somehow “Christianize” our worldy way of doing life? It seems to me rather that we are the Titanic and there will be no betterment of this ship only a variety of costly rescue and salvage operations meant to get as many people to safety as possible. A program of human betterment as the essential Gospel is like rearranging deck chairs on that tragic ship. It demonstrates a profound confusion over the state of affairs, where we are headed (for they would simply improve life on the boat and leave it at sea) and the nature of our passage (temporary).

Rescue must come first. It helps if you have some idea of what you have been rescued from but it is not a requirement.

Jesus, Paul and John mever talk about “improvement,” only being “transformed.” Metamorphoses – the taking of us as one thing and transforming us into something different is what they speak of.  St. John says,

See what kind of love the Father has given us so that we might be called children of God—and we are. Therefore the cosmos does not know us, because it did not know him. 2Beloved ones, now we are children of God, and what we shall be has not yet become apparent. We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-3) [1]

Paul speaks of this transformation using the same word Matthew uses for transfiguration:

Therefore I implore you, brothers, by God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God, your rational worship; And do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by renewal of the intellect, so you may test the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12;1-2) [2]

Here the contrast is specifically between a stylish “betterment” (the Greek word is a form of schema from which we get schematic; and a substantial inner transformation which requires one to place one’s whole self at God’s disposal (v. 1) as a means of personal existential sacrifice. This is said to be “transfiguring.”

On some level we all know this is true and possibly just avoid Jesus’ words about “taking up your cross” to follow Him. We fail to see that this transformative way of life is really the only avenue open that breeds freedom and life. “Amen, amen, I tell you, unless the grain of wheat falling to the ground dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears plenteous fruit.” (John 12:24)[3]

Amid a subtle American prosperity Gospel that is repackaged in a stunning variety of ways and churches which choose to only offer principle-driven ways of personal “betterment” we should note the decline of the Church in the West. It is as if by trying to compete as a Consumer product “Gospel” ceases to truly be vibrant “Good News” at all and just blends in with infomercials and the mass variety of other betterment products available to Americans with a disposable income, Suddenly Christianity is a personal “for me” investment not a calling and a relationship. You can see why it lapses into a kind of slow killing off of faith.

Isn’t the call to active discipleship (students of Christ in a school of transformation) much more apt to bring real change, enliven real faith and move people out of the roles of passive church consumers to active transformative life in Christ?

Focus 3: Depth Exegesis/Exploration over the Passive Viewer Consumer model

Jesus spent more time discipling His close group of followers than he did preaching, healing or doing anything else during His three years of public ministry. And through that the world was changed. Aren’t we doing the opposite – selling Christian experiences like something you can buy in bulk down at “Christco in a 5 gallon drum via our pre-packaged theologies, betterment books and programs for “successful Christian living?”

Does Jesus present Gospel in this way or through enigmatic parables that challenge? Does Paul offer such a slick package or careful and heartfelt instruction meant to grow men and women up into maturity (Ephesians 4:11-17)  

Megachurches are set up to accommodate mass audiences who will sit and passively watch a presentation. A few hours later can anyone recite the real content of the message or just the title?  It is a passive model – like television where the only relevant question is “did you like it?”

The Problem with passive viewership and consumer religion is that it leaves people unchanged and in many cases actually inoculated to transformation.

In contrast, an interactive, dialogical and immersive exploration of biblical texts and worship combined with active discipleship cannot help but begin to change lives. As Mike Breen points out “Most of us have become quite good at the church thing. And yet, disciples are the only thing that Jesus cares about, and it’s the only number that Jesus is counting.” (Building a Discipling Culture) .

Setup for Middle Eastern full course meal “reclining at tables” while studying Luke 7 (Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house for dinner)

In our latest active study: Adventures with Doctor Luke: Middle Eastern Narratives and Parables of Jesus, we employ a dynamic format built for exploring the text in an open yet also disciplined fashion. Sticking to Middle Eastern (Hebraic) peasant roots, more technical notes on the text are sent out a few days in advance so we are not bogged down in the minutiae of language studies or spend all our time on Hebrew poetic form when we really want to get to what is being said in the text.

I act as a facilitator attempting to draw out as many comments from each student as possible in each session of our “micro-exegesis.” I make sure to include quieter members of the group by asking questions or having them be the readers.

Participants are not only learning the Gospel of Luke over 15 weeks, they are also learning how to use the direct tool of biblical interpretation and how to think biblically while they explore.

There is always an immersive/interactive element. Examples can be found in the chart below for weeks 2-6.

WEEK 2    
Luke 7:36-50
Reclining at Table (Middle Eastern Meal during study
WEEK 3
Luke 10:25-37
Bandage imagined wound after oil and wine applied
WEEK 4
Luke 10:38-11:13
Bread, egg and fish behind the curtain as gift
WEEK 5   
Luke 12:13-21
Gameshow: “O Man!”
WEEK 6   

Luke 12;22-39

                Art Project: Lillies of the Field

Naturally, in such an open (but guided) format, theological and philosophical life questions arise which tempt the group to stray from the textual study. In this case anything major is put on reserve for “Round Two” discussions after the exegetical study of the narrative. Parable or both has been concluded.

The study itself is scheduled each week for one hour only so as to not be burdensome, but members have ritually chosen to expand the time to three to four hours of spirited group exploration. I attribute much of this directly to the participatory and non-passive nature of the format.

Variety of finished art pieces working off black and white print on gessoed canvas. Water-colors, acrylics, pens and colored pencils.

It should also be noted that such a study method places exegesis and biblical studies prior to theology (horse firmly before all carts).

In our study time we are simply free to follow the text wherever they go  “come what may” – not in subjectivity, but rather against the firm bedrock of scholarship and embedded in 1st Century studies that keep the study contextualized.

One student., commenting on the team effort, said “I really feel like an explorer!” And as every “disciple” is a “student of Jesus” we want to foster this reality. 

Focus 4: Generative Theology

Taking direct cues from artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura (The Brehm Institute/Fuller Seminary) and his book Culture Care, I saw that the same crises that happened in the Arts under Modernity had struck Theology at the same time as well.  It was just that this last blow, starting at the turn of the last Century all but extinguished any fresh theology from consideration. It was either being deconstructed  and reinterpreted in a culture of Skepticism that reduced it to a bland liberal moralism; or it was being held hostage by “Funda-gelical” reactionaries whose dominant paradigms involved fear and power. In every case it all goes hand in hand with a deeply anthropocentric world-view and then attempting to compensate for that loss via creating consumer religion.  

Makoto Fujimura, Charis | ID: 201206051 | 89 x 132 x 1.25 inches | mineral pigment and gold leaf.

Fujimura has envisioned a way out of the tragedy of Modernity in his work through “Generative Art.” Given the close parallels and root disease for both the Arts and Theology, I saw no reason that  “Generative Theology” would not also be possible.

What does that term mean? A creative/explorative and generative theology is 1) free to proclaim prophetically while being faithful to the biblical witness and 2) does not jettison what is valuable in any of the work which has been done via the previous approach as if a new vision for theology can be done in a vacuum or is the end-all and be-all.

That also means it is more than a peace-at-any-cost ecumenicism. It truly sees all three major branches of the Church as  common heritage and currently as One Body. Let them pretend they are not connected (as the foot says to the leg “I have no need of you.” They can say it but it does not make it true.

Does it mean we should not be on guard or there is no place for polemics or apologetics? Of course not. But let’s no longer be limited to only doing those things or thinking that is our only modus operendi.

Fr. Thomas Merton in 1968

In searching my mind for theologians in my lifetime who are, or were Generative theologians the only person who truly comes to mind is Thomas  Merton. One can argue that C.S. Lewis – when not doing apologetics- was also doing Generative work in both his fiction and in books like Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer and The Weight of Glory.)  But really it was Merton who chose new themes to write on and explore which were 1) not against anyone; and 2) were not polemics or apologetics (or even a practical guide to a way of life).

Generative Theology would produce those books – like the new ones on Christ’s glory or on the Great Christological Hymn and how it might be connected with quantum physics as well as the search for human meaning. And a new generation of commentaries not adjudicated by immediate American concerns or reduced to pragmatic “principles” (I call this homogenization) for use as consumer products. Theological pursuits not determined solely by what is politically en vogue, but which can draw from the seemingly inexhaustibly suggestive nature of the 66 books we hold sacred.

It is here that the word generative once again becomes important. Just as God is to be worshiped for God’s own sake, so great theology is to be down because it is true and it is at the core of being human to explore and document the full range of human experience. This theological expression should not be dominated by a theology primarily “against.” but be essentially a theology for” especially as “Good News” is at the core of that theology. That it retains a edgy polemic against falsehood is, of course, necessary. The character and witness of the New Testament demonstrate this; but it is not all consuming leading to the myopia and hair-splitting we have currently come to. 

 

 

 

[1] The New Testament: A Translation by David Bently Hart (Kindle Locations 10762-10765). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 7065-7068). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
 
[3] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 4717-4718). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
 
[4] F.F. Bruce remarks “This is one of the great Christological passages of the NT, declaring as it does our Lord’s divine essence, pre-existence, and creative agency. Yet, high as the Christology is, it does not appear to be original to Paul himself; but rather part of what he “received” as primitive Christian teaching.”
[5] Becker, Ernest The Denial of Death,. Free Press 1975 p.

Dear Friend

Dear Friend

Who Sees

 

Dear friend,

These days which bring such lighted promise

Within this arduous muscled battle

Witness His bright Charity

                and Wisdom wound

                and found in you.

And while you

                in His great love

                sweep toward the fray

And swords of prayer sing louder still

I am still appearing

                    spearing at windmills

                    tossed and

                    lost along the battle’s rim

Wandering on my dog-eared mule.

                                                                (yes, it is okay to laugh).

 

But you

My friend

Do not despise my youth

And all my lost and easy words

pass by your ears of wisdom

untouched

forgotten

like an untold story

in a foreign city

                                          with no                                                                                            interpreter

 

And though I now drink Hope

Where once

Was bitter gall

You have Hope yet brighter still

Which I do not yet

Understand.

 

But this we do share: We love the Wind

                And  the Wind swirls round us like Love Himself

                And  the thin windchimes tin and shimmer gently

                And the young brown birds land on the wires,

 

Singing

Only to rise on new currents

Painting an ecstatic rhythm of freedom

within the will of the Wind

 

And in my most quiet moments

I see the Universe winding down

Within God’s utter Completeness

Satisfaction

and Joy.

 

Elegy for Carl Daniels

Written during Carl Daniel’s wake
from the 100 year-old Oak which died
the same week he did.

Over the great rolling

Pacific waters came

The driven wind

Licking and skipping

Over the seminal

Pounding whitecaps

Inland

Inland

Raking roary furrows

Over rows of seeded pelicans

Kissing seasoned brays

Driven to the inlet stadium

Round Point Joe

Scaling sandstone rythyms

Higher and higher

Breaching round the birthrim

Pulling the cormorants into dervish

Driven

Driven

Into the cuts of rising cypress and oak

Running the dark-carpeted forests

Ignoring all words

Up

Up

Swirling in whirlwind

Sucking the seed of Great Oak

Into a dancing circle unbroken

Driving seed into the

Darkened

Waiting

Loam.

 

Father seed,

Mother womb

Inward

Inward

Ticklish dance

Inside virgin

California range

Raised underneath

Yet within

The shuddering pulse

Of the Pacific.

 

Dance of the New Oak

Unfolding

Unyielding

Radicles snaking

Young Fatheroots breaking

And taking the earth

Founding

Founding

A Spray of five young

Stalks begin to brood

Extending from the heart

Knowing and naming

Whatever the flinted

Barking trunk

Cannot glimpse.

 

Carved on each branch

Are the names of all

The Lovers

The Songs they sung

The sons and daughters

Whose humble fame

Framed  the surface

Of that expansive

Family name

Shuddering

Shuddering

Five heavy limbs remain

Outweighed

Stretching too far

Too far

From the heart of a trunk now dead.

 

Now Men will come.

Do not despise them.

Men must come.

They are coming

They are coming

Come to pull down the heavywood

Come to root up the tendriled histories

From a Century’s shadowed earth

Cutting a series of red-furled slabs

Still moist with November’s red rings

Still crusted with the dark brown-oak of Fatherwood

Down

Down

Three-fold cords

Bundled and

Stacked along the five family walls

 

When the cold comes

And the hollowness hearkens

Then comes the heavywood

Piece at a time

Laid upon the  hot harness

Of each hearth

Time of ashes

Time of ashes

Colors dancing above the drying centered rings

With hallowed smoke climbing

From the bellies

Of Five children.

The blackened brick, wood and fire

Form the Question:

Where do we go from here?

Where?

Now

The wind once again dances

Over a great empty space.

Outward

Outward

Miles away

Orphans drop

Their inevitable fruit

driven

driven

On the Wind which comes

When new seed is sown.

The wind has shifted

New lives will be formed

Their names will be spoken

Tommorow.

__________________

© 2018 Christopher MacDonald

The Story to End all Stories?

MacZilla3*

When I arrived at the Seminary I was told that among many theologies, unless I adopted a “Postmodern” one I would be viewed by professors and students alike as a “Theological Dinosaur” – a virtual “Bacdonasuarus” I suppose.

I surveyed the playing field at the time and noted several things:

  1. The listed epistemologies were simply the latest in a long line of “lenses” which came and went in popularity over the 40 years I had been studying. The only thing each had going for them was they were “new.” They would be gone, or severely modified in 3-10 years.
  2. The institution I had just joined had 200 students enrolled in it when I first attended in the early 90s and featured world-class scholar Joel Green. Now their building was empty and they had an enrollment under 50. The GTU itself was selling off property. I wondered whose long heavy tail was sinking in La Brea?
  3. I knew enough about Postnodernism to understand that it was largely a reaction that has yet to provide any world-view (or so I thought). I certainly had nothing to fear from any view that debunked Big Grand Ideologies that enslaved millions.  Bring it.

What I did not realize was this was really just a bad attempt by the Seminary to appear “hip” or intellectually viable in the current mileau – which is always a mistake. Being en vogue theologically is like worrying about fashion while working for NASA in deep space.  better to be concerned about rips and tears.

As I have argued elsewhere – trying to be too hip is how you end up – decades later – trying to explain photos of yourself with that really bad hair and moustache you sported in the 70s. The polyester leisure suit? Plead drugs or long stints of drunken-ness. That is your best bet.

So it will be with those so enamored with Postmodernism as anything but the sort of sorbet they serve to cleanse the pallet before you get back to a meal.

Sure – it is helpful. Oh..and it is likely to kill a lot less people than Modernity (that is helpful too).

That (see above) is what Postmodernism proposes to be. As such, it will always fail. At best it can only debunk and then draw no conclusions at all. It can defuse bombs, but not construct any true meaning. To put it another way, when I hear people talk about “deconstructing” I can see the value in it. It is when they immediately go right back to world-building (“we need to then reconstruct…”- anything can follow) that they have lost it.

My primary objection (until I ran across a much better mind in David Bentley Hart) concerning biblical studies was the simple question “Why would you allow what is essentially a literary  theory to be the primary lens for ordering your approach to the biblical texts?”

I mean why not view the texts primarily through Mason jars so long as we are just trying new things? (I’m not very sophisticated).

But leave it to David Bentley Hart to more accurately place his blast points on the problem:

this rigorous soupcon or critical incredulity becomes yet another attempt to extract thought from the quagmires of narrative; it becomes a meta-metanarrative, metanarrative, the story of no more stories, so told as to determine definitively how much may or may not be said intelligibly by others who have stories to tell; it completes not only the critical but the metanarrative projects of modernity (which prove to be indistinguishable). This is where the temper of the postmodern often proves wanting in courage and consistency. The truth of no truths becomes, inevitably, truth: a way of naming being, language, and culture that guards the boundaries of thought against claims it has not validated. (David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Kindle Locations 156-159). Kindle Edition.)

Postmoderns are often just attempting to propose a “the story of no more stories.” As such, it will always fail. At best it can only debunk and then draw no conclusions at all. It can defuse bombs, but not construct any true meaning. To put it another way, when I hear people talk about “deconstructing” I can see the value in it. It is when they immediately go right back to world-building (“we need to then reconstruct…”- anything can follow) that they have lost it.

I think a Postmodern lens can be helpful as one lens among many. In particular it is a good lens by which to perceive the nakedness of “Kingdoms.’ When the metanarratives of men are laid low the God who invades time and space bodily with His own stories – then lives and dies to rescue us- that may be a story one can enter into now – with one’s own personal narrative joining God’s.
_____________

*This is all in fun (the graphic). The “You Wanna Piece of Me?” hails back to an incident where a guy tried to run me over with a ’69 Camaro after a James Bond film – well, maybe not run me over – just scare me by “clipping me” with his car at a good speed. That brought out the phrase in a yell and some chest-thumping – all the while the Wademan laughing hysterically because he knew the actual context and I didn’t. Thanks.

A Translation to be Excited About

Another meaningless argument in the Church-at-Large the last little bit (when one is avoiding serving the Poor, dealing with oppression, supporting the Powers-that-Be and the Dominant metanarrative of success) Is PREDESTINATION.

DLtsUq7VYAEaQY_Pay it no mind. Really. If asked, the shortcut is “I am predestined to not believe in it.” Which is – at least more true.

But why?

With this new translation by David Bently Hart of the New Testament which gives us as much  a pre-theologized text as possible. One such test case is Romans 8:29-30 where his gives a more accurate rendition, avoided the much (down the English language line) loaded word “predestined,” which, since Augustine had co-opted this Greek word and added an entire agenda to it which is not native to its essential meaning and which was utterly foreign to Paul’s intent.” As Hart says:

The next word is the verb προορίζειν (proörizein), which has traditionally—as a result of the Vulgate Latin translation—been rendered as “to predestine.” This is simply incorrect (though some inferior lexica over the years, taking their lead from traditional theological usage in the West, have incorporated it in their definitions of the verb). The word ὁρίζειν (horizein) (whence our word “horizon”), means “to demarcate,” “delineate,” “to mark out as a boundary,” “to distinguish,” “to sort,” “to define,” “to assign,” “to plan out,” “to make determinate,” or “to appoint”; and pro-horizein is simply to do this in advance. It certainly possesses none of the grim, ghastly magnificence of the late Augustinian concept of “predestination”: an entirely irresistible predetermining causal force, not based on divine foreknowledge but rather logically prior to everything it ordains, by which God infallibly destines only a very few to salvation and thereby infallibly consigns the vast majority of humanity to unending torment. Thus, in two of the six instances of the verb’s use in the New Testament (Romans 8:29–30), Paul—blissfully innocent of later theological developments and anxieties—explicitly treats this divine “pre-demarcation” as consequent upon divine foreknowledge, and does so without any qualification or noticeable pangs of theological conscience.

The New Testament: A Translation (Kindle Locations 12157-12169). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

So, a more literal (less filtered) translation is:

those he knew in advance he then  marked out in advance as being in conformityy to the image of his Son, so that he might be firstborn among many brothers;z 30And those he marked out in advance, these he then called; those he called, these he then proved righteous;aa and those he proved righteous, these he then glorified. 31What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?

The New Testament: A Translation (Kindle Locations 6934-6940). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

It says nothing at all about God’s choosing or not choosing people – only His kind intentions towards those He knows are going to choose Him.

As with much “biblical controversy” it wanes and dissipates when you do actual study.

Which is just one of the many superb reasons why we study.

The point is not Calvinism. It could be any one of 100 “isms” like “Dispensationalism,” or “Arminianism,” or “Monasticism, or “Pietism.” Some “isms” are pretty good – but the more they try to over-arching theological grds for all of biblical Truth they always fail, discolor and distort.

I imagine my younger readers have less “isms” hanging around them. Good. For those older? Divesting yourself of as many of them as possible to get back to the naked text is a good idea – or at the very ;east, keep them on a leash.*

This new translation by Hart is a jewel and at just the right time. We need a translation that ignores all the theologies others are trying to sell or tack-on however subtly. We need the Word as pure and unmixed as possible and to be studying it together in community so we can grow our theology in a healthy way.

There is not need for an over-arching system when one has an over-arching loving God who has provided His word for “Every scripture is divinely inspired, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,  So that the man of God may be fitted completely, having been fitted out for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16 – The New Testament: A Translation (Kindle Locations 9672-9675).

These are simple practical goals. I have to wonder what would happen if we could just – en mass – achieve this as the Church universal?  What does that say for your theology?

The amazing opportunity open to this generation is that as one which has largely not been brought up under the heavy and unhealthy umbrella of systematic theology of Church Tradition you have the freedom to start with a relatively clear slate. Only the gods of culture are there to distract and while they may offer significant words against the gods of Power which we can align with – they have no real inherent Good News.

j-r-r-tolkien-c-s-lewis-140807What you will find in mining the pages of scripture is a joyful adventure of discovery to could never have imagined existed. Better than Tolkien; better than Lewis – because both men derived their ideas from the Word itself and the fact is this is the myth that is true  the only Myth that is True.

The Religionists and Systematic Theologians would give you a system and tell you to put away your explorer’s gear. But they have always been wrong. Augustine – for all his genius in other areas was wrong in this – and it was costly. That some Protestants have taken up in like mind? Well look at the fruit is all I say.

Lewis and Tolkien knew well that men and women had free will. Their amazing books of fiction are gripping so often because nothing is predestined to happen as while some prophetic elements of a grand nature may come into play in the living story all is far from a foregone conclusion is things are lived out.

So it is on our times. We may rest assured that all things will wrap up in the Great Wedding Feast of the Lamb and that Christ is victorious – but many a battle still wages on in the City of Man and we have an active part in all that takes place. We can use our freedom to “love and good deeds” or spend our time selfishly on ourself and our enjoyments. One thing is certain – if you wish to help, you must train; and spend tome with others who are training too,

American Theology: Taking Stock

DSCF9077

The main building of the Pacific School of Religion, established in Berkeley in 1901, it is the oldest Protestant seminary West of the Mississippi which is now seeking to sell its property after years of decline.

Entering my third and final year of seminary education at the Graduate Theological Union it is a fair question to ask about my theology. I mean if I has gone to Berkeley for an M.A, in Anthropology you might well as what sort of Anthropologist I was becoming – and perhaps doubly so if I had been studying anthropology and working “digs” on my own all my life.

On the one hand it is an easy question to answer from a personal standpoint; from a professional one it is not easy at all.

Let me say first (on the latter) that I am relieved of the burden of pastoral ministry. I did not seek a Masters of Divinity leading to a pastoral position quite on purpose. That ship has long since sailed, and I leave it to better men and women than myself to do it.

No, I am a theologian – which means that I study God and God’s actions in the world most acutely – and then I try to make sense of this anthropologically. Unlike many a theologian today, I place my horse (God) firmly in from of the cart (humanity) and not the other way around. If your God is simply a projection of your own plight, wishes or agendas then you  will end up hopelessly lost in those very same horizontal waters. God is really not required at all. And if you know this you can actually test it with many people’s theology by removing God from the equation, and noting that really nothing much changes at all. Gid was just window dressing to spiritualize things.

Such is the state of much of much of American Theology – from the “Sublime to the Ridiculous” as they say. We will start with the Sublime.

DSCF9022The Sublime

It is exciting upon starting seminary to think of the theologians you will tackle, the in-depth exegesis of biblical texts you will do and the major issues you will get to discuss with in a long line of theologians.

None of this will actually happen. If you are clever (after you hit enough walls at fairly high speed) you will find ways to do some of this work via other classes. I found that Art and Literature-related classes gave me daylight to run and do some real work (so long as I also did art and  dealt with the literature at hand). Comparative religious studies also enabled me to read in areas like Christology), But my dreams of doing in-depth work on Paul’s Great Christological Hymn in Colossians chapter 1, had absolutely no takers and my papers doing more Middle Eastern unpackings  of Jesus’ parables were met with terse reviews and reluctantly high grades.

I think the worse thing I can say is that I really haven’t learned a damned thing. No new skills or tools. If anything I have consistently asked questions that have been left unanswered and ignored.

As for the Academy itself? It is largely dying – the result as I see it of over-specialization and accommodation to political winds. It would be as if I was that Anthropologist who, while studying in Graduate School, found his program constantly de-railed by theological concerns taking center-stage over anthropological ones: teachers coming to class to skew all there anthropological concerns according to religious moorings and doctrinal ideas like original sin, predestination or the Second Coming and biblical prophecy. If something like that were to so dominate the field of Anthropology you might think it utter madness; yet when immediate anthropological or geopolitical concerns immediate cul-de-sac the study of  theology no one seems to pay it the slightest mind.

Which is actually fine because the result is a dead lifeless theology of no concern: scholars writing to other scholars in a language which can best be described as “turgid.”

So the great Protestant seminaries of America fade into obscurity having forgotten their true subject, and making the mistake of thinking that endowment money will last forever.

The Ridiculous

Meanwhile one would love to say that in such a vacuum men and women of vision have taken up the mantle of vibrant theology and decided to go grassroots. I mean why not? We live in an affluent society and many a Megachurch alone could support and truly advanced learning/explorative new for of biblical/theological study.

Naw. That would interfere with their commercialization process or Christianity Lite.

Clean out those bookstores of all their theology, biblical studies – everything but Bibles (put them in the back so folk have to walk past all our wares) and pack the store with Osteeen, Hagee, LaHaye, Warren, Chapman, Dobson, Piper etc…

Elsewhere I have likened it to the mass production of Fast Food when what we need is healthy organic food. The veering off into politics and joining of “Good News” of freedom, faith and hope to the “Bad News” of moralising power politics has led to the all too accurate accusation of hypocrisy, lack of love and wholesale greed.

And o truly healthy theology can be taught alongside such nonsense.

People Are Hungry: Theology Survives

In times of famine people get inventive or they look to the past to what has worked. There are signs this may be taking place now. On the “Top Ten Christian bestseller list”we are used to see the ever-present C.S. Lewis book (one of our last great explorative 0s). theologians who, with Thomas Merton, died in 196o.

Of great note are books on Dietrich Bonhoeffer like Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxes. A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God and J.I. packer’s Knowing God.

But all of this underscores the reality that no new real theology is, or has been done in three to four decades.

Personal Theology

I said the current public situation was complicated (and this overview has been a simplistic one – you really don;lt even wanna know how messed up it is in all its intricacies.

But personal theology is not dependent of human institutions or social situations. Every since Athanasius fled tot the desert to seek refuge with St. Antony it became clear that your fidelity to God is never contingent on other people.

I love God, which is the first and most important quality for any real theologian to possess. People are critical of this but they are not really thinking it through. Who is the better veterinarian – the woman who loves animals or the one who dislikes them and thinks of them as just “things?”

All the more so with God Who, as you study Him is also your Creator and Redeemer via grace and love. if you have no awe them you have misunderstood your subject; if you have no love then you have not fully opened yourself in every way of understanding.

And if it is true (and it most assuredly is) that God gives God’s own Spirit to those who believe in Him in order to better understand Him then the more open and heart-felt and devoted your mind and heart is to Him the more illumined the Spirit can emblazon your  mind.

You will have the courage to entertain new notions and explore aspects of God;s nature and love others would shut down for fear’s sake. Far from using scripture to limit God; it would invite new “aha” experiences yet to be had.

I mean the same Spirit who inspired the Word of God inhabits your being. This does not releave you of the burden of training to study or the hard work of it – but it can leave you open to new discoveries.