Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Just War As Christian Discipleship

Yesterday in the mail I received two copies of the book Just War as Christian Discipleship (published by Brazos Press) by Dan Bell, one of my former professors at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. I had written an endorsement for the book and the publishers had chosen to use my blurb.

Bell seeks to reframe the just war tradition not just as a checklist for public policy, but as the way Christians should seek to bear the cross even in warfare. His book is timely, provocative and all the more needed as we seek to follow Christ faithfully. Bell moves through the conditions of the just war tradition, laying out some suggestions as to how we might recenter our actions and thoughts so that we may truly love our neighbor even as we wage war.

He points out in the introduction that he intends this book to be read not by specialists or academicians, but by regular folks seeking an understanding of the just war tradition. His writing leaves lots of room for discussion. This book would be a good starting point for group discussions, and would give both supporters of military actions as well as those who cannot support war (along with the vast middle who lie somewhere within that spectrum) the time and ability to critique their own positions. Bell writes,
...this book engages the just war tradition in the hope of strengthening the church's practice of discipleship. Although it will certainly contribue to evaluating various positions and agendas and will certainly have implications for public policy, this treatment of the just war begins from the assumption that the first and overriding concern with regard to matters of war is the church's faithful following of Jesus Christ. Our first concern as Christians is not how to bolster our party or platform while discrediting the other side, nor is it steering politicians and public policy in the right direction. Our first concern when it comes to war should be how we might wage war (or not) in a matter that points to the One who came that all might have life and have it abundantly. How can we live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the midst of wars and rumors of wars? How do we follow Christ by loving and seeking justice for our neighbors in war? (p. 20)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Nicholas of Cusa, Unity and Google Books

I was browsing through Google books one evening looking for some works on unity, ecumenical unity that is. I came across a work by David J. DeLeonardis, Ethical Implications of Unity and the Divine in Nicholas of Cusa.

Cusa's notions of unity are rooted first and foremost in Being. Being and unity exist in a dynamic relationship because each entity that exists is a contraction of all Being, making for a facinating notion that while individuals are unique, they are also dynamically connected to all others since each individual stems from the same source, God. DeLeonardis writes, "Through contraction each being becomes ontologically linked to every other being since all entities derive their being from a common source."

Cusa's notions might help our notions of unity, since his is not one of a monolithic homogeneity, rather a harmonious diversity.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Concordia's The Lutheran Study Bible... Another party heard from

I was on vacation this past week, staying at home to continue the bathroom remodel job that was started well over a month ago... probably almost two. However, payday came and went which meant I needed to run into the office to pick up my paycheck. When I did, I found that my pre-ordered The Lutheran Study Bible from Concordia Publishing House had arrived. I really couldn't wait to crack it open to take a look. In fact, on my way to the bank to deposit said check, I even called a colleague and giddily announced its arrival. I was that excited.

From the very outset, I really liked the look and feel. Rich burgundy, hardcover, with golden lettering on the cover, and a subtly embossed Luther's Rose all give the book a feel that makes it clear this book is meant to last and possess a place of honor in your home, office, library, nightstand, whatever. This study bible is clearly meant to bear great dignity.

Of course, I am am ELCA pastor. I knew before I read one iota of substance held within that there would be significant disagreements between their view and mine. But as one friend pointed out, a denominational study will have its certain polemics (Augsburg Fortress' Lutheran Study Bible is no less polemical; they simply go about their polemics in a different way). For instance, in the opening pages (and probably others throughout the entire bible) there are numerous references to "liberals" who read scripture differently. Their intent is clear: to set forth their own view in extremely certain and unambiguous terms. However, these labels could be much worse in their vehemence, which was actually non-existent. Most references to liberals went something like, "Some liberals read scripture to say X on this point. We read it to say Y, and here's why..." I know there will be disagreement. The balanced and restrained response is just fine. I actually appreciate this method.

And I need to say that I am envious. Concordia's TLSB is what I long for Augsburg Fortress to publish. Concordia evidently put a great deal of work into this study bible. I am not saying AF did not, but everything in Concordia's TLSB is well thought out and planned. Things hang together nicely and make sense. I did not always get that sense from AF's LSB.

The layout throughout TLSB is very similar to the New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (my own study bible of choice). The biblical text is on the top part of the page with explanatory notes on the bottom. In the NOAB, the annotations are kept to a defined section underneath. Every page in TLSB is varied. In the opening pages of the book of Genesis, the biblical text takes up a small percentage of the page, and the commentary takes up over (it seems) three-quarters of the page. Excessive? Perhaphs, but the text and notes seem to be intimately linked. Quotes from Reformers and Church Fathers are peppered throughout. Law/Gospel summaries are places throughout and highlighted by a cross icon. Each one of these summaries includes a prayer.

As a person reads and prays through this bible, she will encounter maps and other excurses that speak to the issues encountered in the text itself. In Paul's letter to the Romans for instance, a table appears that lists topics throughout the letter, along with mistaken interpretations and the then the correct understanding. And while there is a map section, finding them throughout the texts helps us to remember that the bible is not written in a historical vacuum. Quality essays appear throughout. Proper understanding of Law and Gospel, the place of the inter-testamental writings, and others are very useful and would generate much discussion if used in a group setting, I am sure.

Despite the denominational differences, then, there is much more in TLSB that I can and will use. The more I read, the deeper I delved, the more I realized that as per usual it is Christ who is the Word revealed in scripture. That perspective is not lost in TLSB, and even with inherent biases, it is a work that can be used by Christians of many different perspectives. As with AF's LSB, where I refused to make litmus tests out of one or two particular issues, I will hold to the same thinking with TLSB. I am happy to have this study bible in my library. It will not likely replace the NOAB in my usage (most of this has to do with the familiarity of that book to my fingers-I've had it for over ten years now), but I will certainly pick it up sooner than AF's LSB. Concordia has given the Church a solid reference work, one which should be modelled throughout in many and various aspects, even if not in the particularity of parts of its interpretation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

...That they may be one as we are one... Catholic-Orthodox Unity?

A friend sent me an article today ("Is Catholic Unity In Sight?") that speaks of the very near possibility of the reunion of East and West. The restoration of unity between the the Orthodox and Roman Catholicism would be incredibly monumental.

If we confess that the Church is "one, holy, catholic and apostolic," that one-ness is something for which we should seek an ever-deepening manifestation. Our unity, certainly in Christ, but made known in our common confession of him, as well as our shared works for the sake of the gospel, is a witness to the world. When we remain stubbornly divided we damage our witness.

This restoration of communion between two ancient branches of Christianity is to be fervently prayed for.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The God Delusion... and theological positions...

In the Sep. 8, 2009 issue of The Christian Century, one of the book reviews is on the book Losing My Religion by William Lobdell. The reviewer, Valerie Weaver-Zercher, opens her review with the paragraph:

Either you don't believe in God or you're a dope." This is how Newsweek's
Lisa Miller sums up the thinking of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and
Sam Harris. And despite the fact that 90 percent of Americans say they believe
in God, Miller writes, plenty of us seem to enjoy the new atheists' "books and
telegenic bombast so much that we don't mind their low opinion of us."

Well, I don't know if I mind the low opinion of the atheists, but their work is certainly engaging, in style at the very least. So, despite the fact that I have written twice before about the new atheists (10-30-2006 and 4-26-2007) a couple of years ago, I am finally now getting around to reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (and just an aside here but the book cover has the title presented as The GOD Delusion... it would have been much more fitting, I think, to be presented as The god Delusion, but that's just me). I am only a short way into the book, and I agree the above quote from the reviewer, there is certainly "telegenic bombast." The book is not dry or academic. It is written very well and is keeping my interest, even if I am clearly looked down upon bu the author. I am consistently engaged even if I remain unconvinced about his arguments.

Nonetheless, I believe that even this early in the book, I have discovered some common ground. Dawkins lays into the notion that opinions and moral positions based upon religious principles (however they come about) are seemingly untouchable by critique. They stand behind an incredibly thick (and undeserved) wall of respect. Dawkins is out to offend and challenge the position of Christianity (and other religions as well), plain and simple. No doctrinal position or ethical stance should ever be untouchable. As Christians we must be in conversation with others for we have much to learn from other Christians, not to mention non-Christians. Any theologian worth his or her salt must be ready to admit that he or she is wrong, and that won't happen if we are unable to challenge our fellow brother or sister's position. But Dawkins wants it all gone, because it is unreasonable. Reason reigns, at least for him.

In our conversation with the world, we can use secular terms, using reason alone (after all our positions should be reasonable). However we must also wrestle with revelation (that is, what God has done, is doing, and will yet do in Christ Jesus). We cannot ignore the gospel, nor the opportunity we have to communicate it when in conversation with those outside the Church, no matter how much bombast Dawkins and his compatriots unleash.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sweet Sweet Bernard...

I have returned to the devotional For All The Saints as my daily devotions, and am reading it now when I enter my office as the first thing I do. Trying to read right when I go to bed is a problem since I have many many times fallen asleep while I read, only to have my set my book on the nightstand and turn out the light for me. Moving this practice to when I enter my office is very helpful... I am able to give the texts my undivided (mostly) attention and then I often tweet a verse or two or three from the readings, both scriptural as well as others. Today I had in my readings, a passage from Bernard of Clairvaux. In a culture which demands the individual response to the gospel, these words of Bernard are such a clear and distinct speaking of the gospel that they soothe and relieve my irritated nerves, worn away by the constant demand that I must choose, that I must believe. He writes:
I said before that God is the cause of loving God. I spoke the truth, for he is both the efficient and final cause. He himself provides the occasion. He himself creates the longing. He himself fulfills the desire. He himself causes himself to be (or rather, to be made) such that he should be loved. He hopes to be so happily loved that no one will love him in vain. His love both prepares and rewards ours (cf. 1Jn 4:19). Kindly, he leads the way. He repays us justly. He is our sweet hope. He is riches to all who call upon him (Rm 10:12). There is nothing better that himself. He gave himself in merit. He keeps himself to be our reward. He gives himself as food for holy souls (Wis. 3:13). He sold himself to redeem the captives.
Lord, you are good to the soul which seeks you. What are you then to the soul which finds? But this is the most wonderful thing, that no one can seek to be found so that you may be sought for, sought so that you may be found. You can be sought, and found, but not forestalled. For even if we say, "In the morning my prayer will forestall you" (Ps 87:14), it is certain that every prayer which is not inspired is half-hearted. Now let us see where our love begins, for we have seen where it finds its end.
The promise of the gospel is not that we can find God, but that God allows himself to be found. Even if we have a world-shaking conversion experience, or make a decision to follow Jesus, or sit quietly in the pew trusting in full confidence that God has called us through the waters of baptism, we must give thanks that God has made this all possible, that he has granted us faith to believe and the power to become children of God.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Technology and Magic...

In several classic science fiction works--most memorable for me are Isaac Asimov's Nightfall and Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer--it is the scientists who are viewed as the wizards. After all, with advanced technology they possess powers unattainable by mere mortals. They become the shamans who bless the fetish trinkets that we carry around and feel less than human without, bereft of our magical powers. Rodney Clapp writes in a similar vein in his American Soundings column in the Sept. 8, 2009 issue of The Christian Century. His column, entitled "Spooked By Gadgets" closes with this excellent paragraph:
In our hypertechnologized culture, the line between rational prudence and magical animism is razor thin. We want to believe our promethean powers of mechanical invention can bring paradise on earth. And yet our machinery, in such homely, intimate guises as the cell phone, carries with it mystification and even menace—right into our pockets and even our ear canals. In the face of postmodern animism, the secularization thesis— about the death of religions and disenchantment of the world—suffers its most ignominious defeat yet.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Torture? Intrinsically evil?

My friend Mike over at catholicanarchy.org posted clear references from the Roman Catholic church regarding torture. You can read it here.

The Challenge of Evangelization -- Black Robe

A number of years ago, I flipped the channel and came across the film Black Robe. I never saw the end, nor did I see the beginning for that matter. At a used book sale a few months ago, I came across the novel that the film was based on. The novel, written by Brian Moore, follows the French missionary Jesuit priest Father Laforgue, as he travels with an Algonkin tribe to reach the mission to the Huron tribe.

From the outset of the novel, it is clear that the language the priests use regarding baptism and conversion, the only language they know and are clearly indoctrinated into, actually becomes an obstacle when talking to the natives. Father Laforgue (as well as other priests in the book) talks about baptism as the way to life after death, always focused on the other world. He never hears the Native Americans concerns that baptism is more about death. Father Laforgue tries several times to administer baptism just prior to death, always too late, but the Natives see that death always follows the "water sorcery."

Evangelization must always be sensitive to and understand the cultural trappings into which it is brought. Whenever the priest tries to discuss the gospel, he fails to articulate it in terms that the Natives will understand. Throughout the novel, Father Laforgue struggles with the completely foreign nature of the Natives' tribes. Brutal to their enemies, incredibly open with sexual partners, distrustful of privacy keeps Laforgue off balance. But he never senses that the vertigo he experiences comes from the refusal to jettison the theological language which has good apologetic value in the Old World. In the New World, however, the gospel must be communicated with language that has apologetic value there. Laforgue jumps immediately to baptism and the renunciation of all the Natives hold sacred. Interestingly Moore walks the line in the culture clash. The Natives (who hold great stock in dreams) have dreams which all come true, most notably in Laforgue's walking into the Huron village alone. However at Laforgue's presence the fever which is ravishing the Natives begins to lift. Which perspective is right? Are the dreams showing the true worldview? Or is God's hand at work healing the Natives?

I am in no way advocating or suggesting that we throw out all of our theological categories and language. Absolutely not. But we constantly need to be interpreting the story of God's work in the world through Jesus Christ so that we can hear it for what it is, good news. If we fail to understand the surrounding culture, we risk making the gospel unintelligible and have created a stumbling block for the hearers.

The story of Laforgue is something we should pay great attention to, for evangelization is not something in the past, but an ever increasing reality. However, we must be careful not to assume that the past's language will suffice. Even Paul knew this with his "let me tell you about your unknown God." Paul used their cultural trappings as the entry point for the gospel. We can do the same, but only if we pay attention to our surroundings and the story of God in Christ Jesus.

By the way, do not read Black Robe if you are uneasy around crude language, brutal violence, and deptictions of sex. All are prevalent throughout the novel.

A Sign of the End Times?

On the USAT (United States governing body for triathlon) twitter feed the following article was posted. We expect terror from the deep to come in certain forms, but this unnatural terror must surely be a sign of the end, no? At the very least, a sign of the broken relationship between humans and creation.