You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
A very good friend gave me a surefire way to determine whether you have violated this commandment. Just follow these questions -
Is it in your possession? (yes)
Did you buy it? (no)
Did you trade something for it? (no)
Did someone give it to you? (no)
Did you make it? (no)
Then you stole it. Give it back.
That logic is pretty easy to follow if we are talking about a candy bar at the local convenience store. But when the discussion gets to adult issues the answers are not so easy to come by.
Is gambling stealing? Well, at least if you win something?
What about the lottery, is that really gambling? And if you win something, are you guilty of stealing other people’s money? (They obviously don’t have it anymore!)
And, (drum roll please) what about the 6 million dollar question – is making a living off of welfare considered stealing? A person on welfare (and a whole host of other governmental give-aways) is not earning anything, is not receiving the benefit of any labor. A whole bunch of other people do not have the money that they did earn by hard work that was taken from them (by force of law, by the IRS). So, is welfare stealing?
Some would argue that living off of welfare is simply being taken care of by a benevolent government. I would agree with that argument if the government was accepting donations for the welfare system. I would also be more willing to accept it if the recipients were required to produce something in order to get the benefits. But when you coerce people into surrendering large portions of their income to support a systematic method of discouraging industry and self-reliance then I have to question whether there is any benevolence in the system at all.
In God’s economy as illustrated in the Old Covenant, a wealthy land owner was able to cultivate, plant and harvest his crops. This provided for his family, and no doubt the families of his hired hands (or slaves, as the case may have been). Perhaps he also sold or bartered his crops for the other things his family needed. It was an economy that was certainly not capitalistic as we use the term, but it did allow for hard work and industry to be rewarded. However, the land owner was specifically commanded not to harvest to the very edges of his field, and was not to scrape every last grape from his vine. He was to leave the edges, the corners, and the odd bunch of grapes for the poor, the homeless, the landless, and the outcast. There was no welfare system in God’s economy. Provision was made so that poor people could eat, but they had to get out and harvest or glean for their well-being and the care of those who were depending upon them. It was a perfect system of checks and balances. The wealthy could earn a decent living, the poor could be taken care of. But everyone had to contribute.
In my opinion, welfare is nothing other than legalized stealing, big government sanctioned theft. As I mentioned, that goes for a host of other government sanctioned subsidies and grants. We are simply stealing from the industrious and giving to those who cannot work, or more insidiously, are able to work but are simply not willing to work.
What about gambling and playing the lottery? A case could be made that, since everyone involved plays willingly, there is no theft as such. While the issue is not as clear-cut to me as the issue of welfare and other governmental “redistribution of wealth,” I do have some serious misgivings about such “games of chance.”
For one, gambling and the lottery have been rightly described as a repressive tax against the poor and ignorant. There is a reason wealthy people do not use gambling and the lottery as a way to get more wealthy – they know that the house always wins. It is true beyond question that the wealthy gamble, and gamble in huge amounts (just consider horse racing, the “sport of kings”). But I would suggest that for wealthy people gambling is primarily a recreation – a sport, a competition that raises their adrenaline level and makes their otherwise boring lives a little more interesting. On the other hand, the poor and the ignorant see gambling and the lottery as a way to move up, “I’m gonna hit it rich sometime.” There is a joke that says rich people have IRAs, 401(k)s, stocks, bonds, and other retirement portfolios; rednecks have PowerBall. That would be a lot funnier if it were not so true, and so very sad. Billions of dollars are wasted annually that should have been spent on rent, food and clothing.
(I suppose in the interest of open disclosure, I have been known to occasionally buy the tempting PowerBall ticket myself. The baby always needs a new pair of shoes. What was I saying about “ignorant”?)
It all boils down to those simple little questions and the heart of the disciple. Did you earn it? Did you make it? Was it a gift fairly given? Did you buy it or trade for it with money or something else you fairly earned?
If not, you stole it. It does not belong to you.
Give it back.
You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14)
Americans are obsessed with sex. Maybe not as much as other countries, maybe more than others. But, underlying all of our overtly expressive and occasionally repressive sexual mores lies a fundamental preoccupation with all things sexual. We demonstrate it in our clothing (or, lack thereof), our language, our advertising. I would argue we even incorporate our fixation on sexuality into modern praise/worship songs. There is just something that is profoundly icky to me when I hear someone wanting to be lovers with Jesus, or be intimate with Jesus, etc.
One of the ways in which we as professed followers of Jesus betray our schizophrenia as far as sexuality is concerned is to condemn and demonize certain sexual aberrations, while turning a blind eye to others. It is almost like we earn our heavenly citizenship card by standing up against homosexuality, pedophilia, and perhaps some other less than socially accepted sexual misbehavior, and after we convince others of our orthodoxy we are free to dive headlong into our favorite, and more socially acceptable, sexual misadventures.
In other words, we boycott Home Depot because they support homosexual marriage, but we have no issues at all with downloading an adult movie onto our computer or with divorcing our first, second or third spouse because “we just do not feel like we are in love anymore.”
I was going to say I wonder what God thinks about our flimsy little excuses, but I think I already know the answer to that question.
The same God who said, “You shall not kill” and actually meant it also said “You shall not commit adultery.” I think he meant it.
Adultery should not be thought of as simply mingling ones genitals with the genitals of someone of the same or opposite sex and who is not our lifelong mate. Adultery comes in many different sizes, shapes and colors. We can obviously violate our wedding vows with a one night stand or a multi-year affair. We can also violate those same vows by creating “emotional affairs,” office liaisons, addictions to pornography, and the mental journeys into fantasies that Jesus condemns in Matthew 5:27-30. Many marriage partners have been unfaithful to their spouse who would never seriously consider the physical act of unzipping his or her pants in an afternoon tryst at the No-Tell Motel.
And, believe me, the non-Christian world sees through this duplicity and it is one of the primary reasons that people will tell a professing Christian, “You can keep your hypocrisy to yourself, I don’t want any part of it.”
Have you ever wondered why God was so adamant about fidelity in our marriages and to our marriage partners? Might it be that the image of the marriage relationship is one of the primary images that He used to teach about His relationship with us? Is it not striking that one of the most powerful images of spiritual unfaithfulness in both the Old and New Testaments is that of adultery? God used the marriage relationship to teach us about His love for us and His commitment to protecting us, and He described our covenant relationship with Him in language that is identical to the marriage covenant.
This command is not an afterthought. It should not be a minor point of emphasis with Christ’s disciples. If we are going to raise our voices against the sins of homosexuality, pedophilia, polyamorous marriages and other sins of the flesh that we consider to be egregious aberrations of God’s holy nature, then it is well past time that we make the same noise against the sin of adultery.
That means adultery in every shade, color, size and permutation, from ogling the models in the Victoria’s Secret catalog to making that rendezvous at the No-Tell Motel.
The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer edited and introduced by Isabel Best (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 210 pages.
There are so many ways to introduce this review…
I have spent many years as a pulpit minister. I have preached hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sermons. I have three degrees in ministry/theology and am working on a fourth. Suffice it to say I love the church, theology, preaching and ministry. And when I come across books on preaching like this one I realize just how much of a failure I have been in serving in these various ministries. I have often said that I am just an apprentice in the field of ministry, but there are times I do not even feel qualified to say I am an apprentice. Sitting at the feet of Bonhoeffer is just one of those times.
I have 15 out of the 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (to the best of my knowledge, vol. 14 is still forthcoming at this date). I have both Eberhard Bethge’s and Eric Metaxas’ biographies of Bonhoeffer. I have numerous other volumes about Bonhoeffer. Needless to say I know his story, if not well, then at least better than most. I was genuinely excited to get word that this volume had been printed, and I bought it at the first chance that I had.
My review in a nutshell – if you love preaching, or if you are interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or both, then you need to buy this book!
Many writings by Bonhoeffer are difficult for the modern reader to understand. For one reason, Bonhoeffer was writing in a different historical, theological and philosophical realm than what we are living in today. Classic liberalism (which Bonhoeffer was writing to largely reject) was in the flower of its youth. Even though the world had just experienced World War I, there was still the idea lurking that it was the “war to end all wars.” The evils of Adolf Hitler were still to be unleashed as Bonhoeffer penned and delivered most of these sermons. Technologically the world was still a toddler compared to our current day. The atom had not yet been split (although physicists on both sides of the Atlantic were getting closer by the day) and so many things that we take for granted were not even on the drawing boards.
Two, unless you know how to read German (and theological German at that), you are forced to read Bonhoeffer in translation. That is where I am. That limits your understanding to the quality of the translator and the overall translation. Any literary work suffers in translation. Bonhoeffer’s complex and very intricate arguments are no exception.
However, (and getting back to the point of this review), Bonhoeffer’s sermons are very different. Whereas Bonhoeffer’s early theological writings can almost be opaque, his sermons shine with a clarity that is remarkable. You can see Bonhoeffer’s theology through and through his sermons, but he wrote and delivered them with the common person in mind. He wrote them to be challenging, to be sure. But he wrote and delivered them to be effective, and the spoken word cannot be effective if it is not understood. Bonhoeffer’s sermons in his collection are brilliant examples of how to make the complex understandable. Take the following as an example:
One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. (p. 34).
It is impossible for me to identify my “favorite” among these sermons, but if I absolutely had to pick one, it would be the sermon on Gideon, delivered on Feb. 26, 1933 (p. 67-74). Quite honestly, I do not think that I have read or heard a finer sermon in my whole life.
One word about style. Many people are so used to the “three points and a poem” type of preaching that nothing else fits the bill. That person would be terribly disappointed in this collection. Bonhoeffer did not preach topically, and he hated reducing the gospel to mere moralization. In these sermons Bonhoeffer simply took a single text (often based on the church calendar that the Lutheran church followed) and preached it – he made the text come alive. When you understand the political events that were taking place as Bonhoeffer delivered these sermons you realize just how courageous he was. As Isabel Best notes in her introduction, Bonhoeffer did not preach overtly political sermons, and yet he spoke to the political situation of his day in virtually every sermon that he preached. But he let the text do the convicting – he simply “explicated” the text so that the message of the text could come through. His technique was brilliant, and yet if you heard one of these sermons delivered in their original setting I doubt you would have notice “technique” at all. You simply would have heard the word of God.
Someone who knows me and my theology well might be surprised that I am able to write such glowing reviews about Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor educated in the thick of German Classical Liberalism. My response is this: the gospel is not denominational. When Bonhoeffer preached the text there is simply no finer explication and application of God’s word. I am not so naive as to suggest that every word in these sermons is absolute truth. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, and when he gets closer to Luther than he does Jesus it is obvious. He preached salvation by faith only – something that neither Jesus nor Paul preached, but something that Luther did. So be it – I am smart enough to sift the wheat from the chaff. It is just that (in my most humble and otherwise brilliant opinion) there is very, very little chaff in these sermons.
Another positive note about this collection in particular. There is a brief introduction to the entire collection, and each individual sermon receives a brief historical note. Isabel Best is highly qualified to be the one to introduce and edit this collection, and if you are unfamiliar, or just barely familiar, with Bonhoeffer’s life and work her historical notes will be invaluable in helping you “hear” these sermons.
And now the one huge burr under my saddle about this book. It received the title, “The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” and yet even in the introduction it is admitted that there are 71 extant sermons or homilies recorded in the collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book only includes 31. Therefore, it should not have been labeled “The Collected Sermons” but something like “A Collection of Sermons” or even “The Collected Sermons, Vol. 1.” That is a small quibble, I grant you. But you cannot call something “The Collection” if you are only including less than 50% of the total of whatever it is you are collecting.
There is so much more I would like to say – but I am already over 1,300 words. But this book is a gem, and I love reading beautiful books.
This book is not just for preachers, but it is for serious Bible students. If you use books that include short devotional readings for your personal prayer time this would be a wonderful guide for your devotions. These sermons are not long – there are no 45 minute harangues in this collection. If you are a preacher and you want to be fed by one of the best, I highly recommend you obtain this book. It will push you in your interpretation and in your delivery of your sermons. I really, really, really wish I had the opportunity to read this book back when I was 22 and just getting out of college. It would have changed the course of my career significantly. As it is, I am thankful I had the opportunity to read it, and it will help me for as long as I have left to preach the gospel.
I love reading Thomas Merton. He was an amazingly articulate writer. I would read him even if his content was poor simply to enjoy his writing. But his content is anything but poor. His is a rich and profound spirituality.
And then there is his human side. I just had to share this little nugget.
Up to now (August 1962) there have been 106 nuclear tests since testing began again (almost a year). Thirty-one of these by the USSR, seventy-four by the USA, and one by Britain, in the USA (Nevada). The USA had made twenty-nine atmospheric tests, twenty-six in the South Pacific and three in Nevada. The USA has also made forty-four underground tests and one in the stratosphere. Total of all nuclear tests since the beginning: USA 229, USSR 86, UK 22, France 5. Grand total: 342 nuclear tests, of which 282 were in the atmosphere.
Nice going, boys!
(taken from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, New York: Image Books, 1965, 1966) p. 253.
Brilliant political commentary from a Trappist monk! Priceless!
And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14, RSV)
I wish I had a dollar for every book and blog post that has been written describing the decline of the church of Jesus Christ today, or the prescription of the one single magic potion that would reverse this decline. Depending on the theological worldview of the author the church either has to become more modern or it has to go back to a pristine form of some past era. The worship needs to become more vibrant, relevant and “hip” or it needs to become more contemplative and dignified. The church needs to surrender the reigns of leadership to the younger people (whether in actual roles of leadership or at least in terms of the direction of the church) or it needs to “put the young ‘uns in their place” and reject any and every call for modernization. Just about everyone has a silver bullet or at least a silver plated bullet that will bring the church back from the brink of destruction to a full blossom of youth and vitality.
I am struck with the realization that most of these suggestions, while every one might be good intentioned and even healthy in some respect, can be described simply as window dressing. Hiring a younger minister, recruiting a praise time or removing the praise band altogether, removing the pews, creating a prayer labyrinth, lighting candles and incense – all of these external changes will amount to nothing if there is not a substantial change somewhere else. That change has got to be in the heart of the individual, and the collective heart of the congregation, or nothing anyone does is going to amount to anything at all.
I am also struck with the realization that the one voice that most people refuse to allow to be spoken in the church is the voice of the prophet. Hence, I turn to the prophets with increasing interest. I am convinced we cannot hear the voice of the Messiah correctly if we refuse to hear the voices of those who prepared for his arrival. I believe our focus on surface religion and our avoidance of the prophetic message are inextricably related. If we want to restore our church, we must learn to hear the prophets once again. No, that is not a “magic bullet.” But it is a necessary beginning.
Notice in the passage above – Isaiah did not say the people were not honoring God. Oh, they were honoring God all right – dressed in their finery and exuding all kinds of spirituality they worshipped with great pomp and circumstance. But, and this is a common theme throughout all the writing prophets, God would not be mocked with their false worship. He saw straight through their empty and vain ceremony. As Isaiah stated it, the process of worship that had devolved by the time of his writing was simply, “…a commandment of men learned by rote.” How many of our worship services can be described by that one dreadful line?
I have been involved in multiple ministry situations in a relatively broad sampling of congregations and there is one characteristic that defines virtually all of them. (Note: I have not been to every congregation, so if your congregation does not fit this description, simply move on). That characteristic is a lack of commitment. I am not accusing every member of every congregation – some members are amazingly committed. There is, however, a disturbing number of individuals who simply could not be any less interested in the mission of the church.
I have known members who would not miss a softball practice or game to save their life, but who cannot manage to get out of bed early enough on Sunday morning to attend a Bible study. I have known dear sweet little old widow ladies who would not miss their weekly card game if they had double pneumonia, but let them be afflicted with a case of the sniffles and they are nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. I know men who can quote the batting averages of the complete roster of their favorite baseball team who could not find a Scripture if they were handed a Bible with thumb indexes for each book. I have known church leaders who had a chest full of pins from their social club honoring their recruiting prowess who never, ever invited anyone to attend a worship service. I have known salesmen who would drop everything to make a sales call for their business but who were always “booked solid” when it came time to make an appointment to study the Bible with a friend or neighbor. I have known brilliant teachers who were always “too tired” to teach a class. I have known retirees who had plenty of time for the golf course, for the fishing stream, or for the lunch room at the senior center but somehow never had any time to volunteer for a congregational ministry.
Why is it that the auditorium will be full on Sunday morning, but on Monday or Tuesday night when the “rubber is meeting the road” there is only a handful of members show up? And why is it that even though they are so worn out, so tired, and so distracted, that they would not be any other place but the Bible study table, the prison visiting room, the nursing home, the soup kitchen? Is it not because deep inside their heart they have the love of their Lord burning brightly?
Somehow or another the softball diamond, the card table, the bowling alley, the social club, the Senior Center – all of these can make absolute demands of our time and we do not even flinch. But let the Lord’s servant speak the words “total commitment” and watch the fur fly.
How dare you expect me to be totally committed to the church! You are not my master. I have more important things to do.
And so Bible studies go untaught, lonely people go unvisited, critical ministries wither and rot when the willing servants finally get burned out or die. And the members who only know the “fear of the Lord as a commandment learned by rote” wonder why their country is “going to the dogs,” wonder why no one seems to have any moral values anymore, wonder why no one is attending their church anymore, wonder why there is no teacher for their class, wonder why no one will ever come to visit them. And they dream up such wonderful ideas as adding PowerPoint projectors to their auditoriums and building a prayer labyrinth in the weed patch behind the building. And, if they are really radical, they might even recruit a praise team to make their vain worship more relevant.
Sometimes I really have to wonder – Is God through with us yet? When is he going to do something marvelous with this generation? And will we have the spiritual eyes and ears to become aware of it when it happens?
God, revive us again, and please give us eyes to see, and ears to hear when your Spirit starts working in our desperate world.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12)
I did not specifically plan to write about parents just before Mother’s Day. I guess that was just serendipity. But it does allow me to get something off of my chest. More of that in a moment – but first, let us look at this command.
Have you ever wondered why, after four commands that specifically relate to God and how we are to honor Him, that the first command that relates to our fellow humans is a command to honor our parents? This is not just important, I think this is critical to stop and ponder.
Our culture is respect phobic. Just think about what passes as humor today, what gets the biggest laughs. If a comedian can make a joke about any authority figure the house goes crazy. We disrespect the office of the President of the United States. We disrespect the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court. We disrespect the courts and our police officers. We disrespect spiritual leaders (especially if they are conservative Christian spiritual leaders!) and we disrespect school teachers.
And all of this disrespect begins in the home. We, as a culture, have virtually dismissed the concept of respecting our fathers and our mothers.
Unfortunately, I fear a great deal of this situation began with parents who decided they did not need to be respected. Somewhere back in the 1960′s or maybe a decade or so later the latest and greatest philosophy was that parents were not supposed to be authority figures, they were to be their children’s best friends. So, respect went out the door and it was replaced with a faux friendship, something that was neither friendship nor was it parental leadership. A generation deprived of parental guidance then went on to raise their children without any real understanding as to how to be parents. Now, at least the third generation of children is being raised by parents who do not know how to instill respect, and more tragically, will not support those adults who are left who are capable of teaching respect.
Respect must be learned, but if there are no teachers, how can it be taught?
Strangely enough, it is exactly during this time that the “Hallmark Card” holidays of Mothers Day and Fathers Day (and now Grandparents Day and who knows what other day we will choose to celebrate) exploded. I think there is a telling sociological process going on here.
Simply put – we are not honoring our parents throughout our normal year, so when that one “special” day comes along we have to assuage our guilt and so we buy flowers, or an expensive necklace, or a fancy gizmo for dad, and we pass that off as “honoring” our mother or our father. How many times will you be told just before Mothers Day or Fathers Day to “honor” your mom or dad by spending a lot of money on something that is either basically pretty trashy or on something that will wilt and fade away within days if not hours? That is honor? Excuse me, but that is buying forgiveness to mollify a guilty conscience.
We don’t honor our parents by giving them some cheesy gift once a year. We honor our parents by respecting and obeying them while we are in their homes, and by continuing to honor and respect their guidance throughout our adult years. We honor our parents by raising our children to believe in and to respect the teachings that our parents instilled in us. We honor our parents by working hard and by doing our best in everything that we do. We honor our parents in the way we treat other parents who are both older and younger than we are. We honor our parents by mentoring younger parents in the craft of raising children – and that means that we demand respect from those tyrannical three year olds who absolutely refuse to offer it. We honor our parents with our words, our actions, and our thoughts. Everything that we do communicates either that we respect and honor our parents, or that we could not care less about those who raised us.
We honor our parents when, at that point we must disagree with them, or decide that we must act or believe in a way that our parents would never act or believe, that we still honor and cherish the guidance that brought us to our adult decision. No parent is ever perfect, and in a way it is no dishonor to disagree with our parents. But it is a huge sign of disrespect to mock or disparage the thoughts and beliefs that our parents held deeply. We can disagree in a most holy and honorable manner.
Our “retirement centers” and “nursing homes” and other facilities have become nothing more than warehouses for abandoned and disrespected parents. I know that many older adults can no longer take care of themselves and require specialized attention. I am not speaking about those individuals. I am speaking about those parents whose children cannot be bothered by the physical demands of taking care of an older parent and who simply ship them off to some out-of-the-way institution so that they can maintain their upper middle class lifestyle of soccer games and ballet recitals and country club events.
When we disrespect and dishonor our parents the land will vomit us out. I think that is pretty much the message of Exodus 20:12.
I do not think that day is in our future. I think it is here and now. We live in a land of mockery, abandonment, disrespect. Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. That which a man sows, he shall also reap. I think that is pretty much a New Testament principle. And, sadly, I think we are living it out right now.
“Holy God, as our eternal Father – teach us how to respect. Give us the courage both to respect our elders and to instill respect in our children. Help us to once again live in a land blessed by the sweet odor of respect and honor. Help us to see the error of our way, and lead us back onto the path that we have forsaken so long ago.
One thing I can say about Postmodernists – they sure love to talk about culture. Everything, it would appear, is connected to and limited by one’s place of birth, and especially one’s time of birth. If you were born in a patriarchal age, you were doomed to slave under a patriarchy. However, if you were born in the late 20th or early 21st century you are blessed to be an egalitarian – and a postmodern as icing on the cake.
Postmoderns do not like anything to be authoritarian, but they are especially opposed to having an ancient text provide any type of authority. For disciples of Christ this poses somewhat of a dilemma – because Jesus certainly used an ancient text (the books we refer to as the “Old Testament”) as an authority in his life. It was not a “god,” but it certainly contained the words of the true and living God; and he used the Torah not only as example but as it was designed – as a light for his feet.
Those who wish to claim a Christian lifestyle while challenging the role of the written text have come up with some ingenious methods to deal with the texts that, at least on the surface, appear to be authoritarian. Many simply deny that they belong in the canon that we call the Bible. (The word canon itself means “rule,” implying authority.) Thus, for many the letters that we call the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were not written by the apostle Paul as the texts claim, therefore they are not authoritarian for the life of the disciple today. Others, while not willing to remove entire books, will remove certain verses within those books.
Finally, the “trump card” that many Postmoderns use is the “culture card.” Briefly stated, this argument posits that, because the authors of these ancient texts lived in times so far removed from our advanced culture, the texts they wrote cannot possibly be thought of as being an authority for our life today. Thus, these exegetes can keep the objectionable books in the canon, but they simply ignore the verses that have been found to be patriarchal, homophobic, capitalistic, militaristic – the list is almost inexhaustible. In the Postmodern setting the text is not the judge of the reader or listener, the reader or listener is the judge (and far too often, the executioner) of the text.
The Postmodern interpreter can do wonders with certain texts by pointing out the cultural differences between the time period of the various biblical authors and our own, but they have a significant problem when they come to the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. This letter is also a major point of emphasis for Postmodern interpreters, as they have issues with the apostle Paul’s apparent homophobia and male chauvinism. Thus, the letter of 1 Corinthians provides both a test case, and, in my opinion, the rock on which the ship of Postmodernism founders.
As I see it, in order for Postmodern exegetes to win the battle of interpretations they must prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ancient texts of the Bible were written for one specific audience, and that the only way for the texts to be valuable today is if they are “re-contextualized” to meet modern (or, better yet, Postmodern) sensibilities. On this point I will offer partial agreement. Especially in regard to the writings in the New Testament I will agree completely that they were written as “occasional” pieces – they were written to address specific questions or issues in concrete situations. However, that is where the Postmodern ends his or her exegesis, and it is at that point that I offer my strongest disagreement. And, as evidence exhibit “A,” I offer the letter of 1 Corinthians.
In terms of specific situations, we can learn that the letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written to the church of God in Corinth in approximately the middle of the first century. It’s author, destination, and approximate date are among the least debated in New Testament studies. Paul specifically mentions the issues that “occasioned” the writing of the letter – division, sexual immorality, issues of congregational life and spiritual giftedness. Therefore, the “concrete” and specific questions that the letter addresses are not to be debated. We could argue, if we so desired, that the answers that Paul gives to these issues and questions were to be used solely by the congregation in Corinth and only during the time period the original readers were alive. That is the path that Postmodern interpreters want us to walk. That would be a very easy conclusion to make – and in fact it is argued by a great many brilliant minds.
The only problem is, as I see it, the whole argument is destroyed by the text of the letter itself. Four times in the letter Paul tells the Corinthian disciples that what he is writing to them (and what he has taught them previously in person) is what he teaches “everywhere and in every place” (see 4:17, 7:17, 11:16 and 14:35). That means that in Jewish Jerusalem, in Gentile Ephesus, in Greek Athens and Corinth, and soon to be in Latin Rome Paul preached the same message and made the same points. Across multiple cultural platforms and in reaction to multiple socio-economic and political situations Paul did not “contextualize” the content of his message, although he may have contextualized the manner in which he presented it. The mode of communication may change, the content cannot be changed.
I once heard a lecture by an individual whose classical scholarship cannot be questioned. He is perhaps one of the finest scholars the Churches of Christ have produced. He was lecturing, oddly enough, on the letter of 1 Corinthians. I will never forget his conclusion. He stated that the doctrine of the living church should never be limited by the aberrations of the first century congregations to which the bulk of the New Testament was written. I was dumbfounded. If the doctrine of the church cannot be limited by the writings of the apostles to address those very aberrations, to what can we appeal for the formation and limitation of our doctrine? I had not heard of “postmodernism” at that point in my life but I have come to understand that speech in an entirely different light now than when I first heard it. What I understand now is that this scholar, who in my estimation is beyond questioning in his knowledge of the Greek language and the history of the New Testament, came to a conclusion that was in direct opposition to the words of the text. Therefore the ancient text had to be “re-contextualized” to fit his new conclusion. All he had to do was anchor 1 Corinthians to the city of Corinth in the first century, and he could advocate basically any interpretation he wished.
I have no problem accepting the fact that our Bible, and the New Testament in particular, was written by very human beings in concrete, specific situations. I would even argue that is true of the Old Testament as well. I have been taught and I believe that the more we come to understand those cultures and time periods in which our ancient texts were written we can understand and interpret the books more faithfully. I am all for learning more about the ancient world in which our Bible was written.
But I refuse to accept the conclusion that we are to leave our Bibles in the dust of those ancient civilizations. The writers of the New Testament certainly did not think that the texts of the Torah were to be left in the musty caves of Mesopotamia, Egypt or Arabia. Those texts were alive and brought life to the early church. So today, we do not abandon our New Testaments on the pillars of ancient Rome, Ephesus or Jerusalem. The text is living, it speaks to today – the spirit of God is breathing out of the text just as surely and the Spirit of God was breathed into it as it was first written. The heresy of the Postmodernist is that of turning the living and active Word of God into a dead and decaying clump of leather, papyrus or clay.
Surely we need to speak God’s word in a manner that is appropriate to the audience that is called to hear it. We must not transport our western culture into places where it would be harmful and confusing to do so. And we must be careful not to read into the text concepts that are not there, but that we wish were there, due to our specific culture and issues.
But the content of God’s revealed word is not up for negotiation. God does not change his mind simply because the calendar changes or because the reader moves from a democratic culture to a dictatorial one, or from a patriarchal culture to a matriarchal culture. God’s will and His words are eternal.
And that is a situation the Postmodernist simply cannot contextualize.
I have a weird library collection. Mainly that is because I am weird, and weird is as weird does. I have some volumes written by some of the most conservative authors who have ever taken pen to paper. And I have a couple on the other end of the spectrum as well. The largest single collection in my library belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, in my “devotional” section another name is very prominent – Thomas Merton.
For those of you who do not know me that may not be such a stretch at all – hardly considered weird. But theologically I come from a heritage that is anything other than Roman Catholic. I believe very strongly in believer’s baptism (famously nicknamed “credo-baptism” as opposed to “infant baptism”). I most certainly do not believe the scriptures teach the doctrine of transubstantiation. Nor do I believe that there is an unbroken line of apostolic authority from Peter down to the latest leader of the Roman Church known as the Pope. There are other differences between what I believe the scriptures teach and what the official stance of the Roman Church details.
And yet I find myself drawn to a spirituality that is exemplified by writers such as Henri Nouwen and, in this case, Thomas Merton. I have purchased and read several of Merton’s books, and the prevailing wisdom is that you really have not understood Merton until you have read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I had resisted for several years, because I really liked his devotional writings but was not sure about an autobiography. Finally, I decided to lay aside my misgivings and read the book.
Boy, am I glad that I did.
I would concur that reading The Seven Storey Mountain sets Merton’s other writings in context. You learn so much more about the man and the time period in which he underwent his amazing conversion. To understate the matter – Merton is an absolute wordsmith. He has the gift of writing that I wish I had, and that is an inspiration to me. Reading his autobiography you get an idea about how that craft was born into him, and how he honed it to its razor-sharp perfection.
Because this is an autobiography (at least through his entrance into the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani), it would not be of any special value here for me to critique each chapter or section. It is simply the story of Merton’s life. But my copy is full of beautiful expressions of Merton’s keen eye, his talented pen, and especially of his deeply observant eye of faith. The book is a moving account of a young man’s journey from secular emptiness to spiritual fulfillment. There were times I did not want to put the book down – and other times I did put it down just so I could process something that Merton communicated. If you like the story of spiritual journeys, and you do not already have this book, by all means this is a journey that you do not want to miss.
With all of those positives noted, I must add that I felt a palpable degree of sadness as I read about Merton’s conversion to certain aspects of the Roman Church that I simply do not understand. His devotion to Mary, for example, while admirable in one respect, is so far outside of my process of understanding that I just do not comprehend how someone born outside of the Roman Church can come to accept its implications. The adoration of Mary is a relatively young belief in the Roman Church, and receives no biblical support. I had a Roman priest explain the philosophy behind the adoration of Mary (at least from his point of view) and so I think I understand that, but I must insist that it is a tragedy when a person who professes a love for Jesus as the Son of God takes some aspect of Christ’s divinity and attaches it to his earthly mother. There are other aspects of Roman Catholicism that I disagree with on doctrinal grounds, but this is not a book arguing doctrine. This is a book documenting one man’s journey from unbelief to belief, and a special kind of belief at that.
About the only thing I found missing (and I bet I am about to REALLY expose my ignorance here) is why Merton spelled “Storey” with an “e.” I have a suspicion that if I had a better resume of literary understanding I would “get it.” But, I don’t, so I don’t. I am awaiting someone to let me in on the explanation, and then I will be that much more informed about the book and the life of Merton.
So, bottom line, do not read this book if all you are looking for is a way to argue against Roman Catholicism. Read this book if you are interested in Thomas Merton’s journey. Read the book if you have read some other of Merton’s writings, and you want to know more about the man. Read this book if you are interested in the process of contemplative faith. And, by the way, read this book if you are interested in really good writing, and if you want to increase your own skills at the craft of putting words on paper.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.