Tag Archives: NT Wright

Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How do have the conversations that matter most?  Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered.  Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday.  Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon.  The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality).  A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline.  Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting.  As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote.  This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted):

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote.  It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern).  But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition.  Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them.  Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation.  This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling.  Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging.  Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the same-sex marriage debate.  His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement.  Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things.  We can do better.  But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echo-chambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints.  The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the flesh-and-blood church of Jesus Christ.  But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement.  I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

Maybe the Thought Police Aren’t Such a Bad Idea?

Base of a human brain, from Vesalius' Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.
Base of a human brain, from Vesalius’ Fabrica, courtesy Wikipedia.

Human beings are thinking creatures.  To be sure, we are embodied, and our flesh-and-blood living matters, too.  But while our capacity to think is a quality that separates us from the beasts, this too often goes unused.  This is tragic for all people, but especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus.  Christian faith is not about the abandonment of critical thought but about its enlivening, about its highest end.  N.T. Wright argues that the Church – the body of people, alongside Israel, called to be and to bear God’s message to the world – cannot be herself without thinking:

“If the ekklesia of God in Jesus the Messiah, in its unity and holiness, is to constitute as it were its own worldview, to be its own central symbol, it needs to think: to be ‘transformed by the renewal of of the mind’, to think as age-to-come people rather than present-age people, to understand who this God is, who this Messiah jesus is, who this strange powerful spirit is, and what it means to be, and to live as, the renewed people of God, the renewed humanity.  This is a worldview, in other words, which will only function if it is held by humans with transformed minds, and who use those transformed minds constantly to wrestle with the biggest questions of all, those of God and the world.” (Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 567)

If you spend too much time in the wrong internet haunts, you quickly get the impression that Christians today have no capacity for or interest in critical thinking.  Oh, to be sure, there are a lot of rhetorical grenades tossed about, many blogs and articles written, read, and shared, but most of this takes place within very defined and uninteresting echo chambers.  The conservatives quote Witherington, Piper, or Al Mohler, and the progressives quote Borg, McLaren, or Rachel Held Evans and likely post 15 articles from HuffPo Religion, AKA theology’s Mos Eisley.  It’s all quite dull, really.

Christianity cannot be sustained absent renewed minds that come about by prayer through the gift of the Spirit.  This is a non-negotiable part of our faith, though many seem to want to make it option  (just look at my previous post’s comment section).

noll scandalI suggest the church needs thought police.  Not, mind you, to police what is thought – but simply that thought occurs at all.  While I don’t count myself a progressive or conservative Christian, I can appreciate such Christians when they engage their own and others’ faith traditions with depth and sincerity.  Unfortunately, too much of our conversation in the church turns on surface-level ranting that makes MSNBC and Fox News look academic.  Two decades ago, Mark Noll charged that The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was that there wasn’t much of one.  Unfortunately, rather than rising above that, many progressive evangelicals and other populist Christian voices have continued this trend.

As Wright notes, there is no church without renewed minds marked by Spirit-imbued intellectual effort.  There is much more, of course, to being God’s people.  But when lived out truly, our vocation to the church will always include, treasure, and encourage the life of the mind.

Book Review: The Jew Named Jesus

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     I rarely read hot-off-the-presses books (you might say ‘cheap’, but I prefer good old-fashioned stewardship), so getting to read Rebekah Simon-Peter‘s new book The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message was a real treat.*  Equal parts memoir, salvation history, and a challenging call to the church today, Simon-Peter’s highly personal new book addresses some crucial questions in the life of the church.

Simon-Peter’s story is a fascinating one.  Raised a Jew, and spending time in both Orthodox and Reform circles, she experienced a dramatic encounter with Jesus that led her to search.  That quest eventually brought her not just to to the church, but to seminary and ordained ministry as a United Methodist Elder.  In this respect, she has much in common with Lauren Winner, who has also narrated her journey from Judaism to Christianity.  Most interesting here is Simon-Peter’s search for identity: her entrance into the church made her an outlier in many Jewish circles, while the Jewish identity and faith she wished to still claim caused her challenges in reading the New Testament and understanding her identity as a Jesus-follower (marrying a Catholic do doubt made things interesting as well).  On p. 21, she describes herself as a “Reform-Odox-Metho-Juda-Lic.” (!) Most fascinating are the tidbits about her work, as a Jewish-Christian clergywoman, with an African-American UM congregation.  There are serious implications here for Jewish-Christian relations and for how the church relates to Jews who have come to follow Christ.

Furthermore, Simon-Peter does an admirable job dealing with some very heady problems in post-Holocaust New Testament studies.  The horrors of the Shoa loom large across any contemporary discussion of Jewish-Christian relations, and Biblical interpretation is front and center in these debates.  Her chapters address weighty biblical and theological questions: “Was Jesus A Christian?”; “Did the Jews Reject Jesus?”; “Did the Jews Kill Jesus?”; “Has God Rejected the Jews?”  Sadly, these answers are not obvious to many today in both academic and ecclesial circles.  The identity of Jesus as a Jew is still a source of embarrassment both for the Anglo church and for scholars who have preferred to see Jesus as a radical or revolutionary rather than a faithful Jew of the 1st century AD. Likewise, the critical place of Israel in God’s plan (“salvation is from the Jews”), which has not been undone but fulfilled in Christ, is often missing in much Christian thought and speech.  Simon-Peter provides a helpful corrective on these and other points.

While not an in-depth scholarly treatment, she does address these vital topics in ways that would be accessible to anyone.  For clergy and those who have studied either comparative religion or Biblical studies to a significant degree, I would hope that much of this is not new.  For those who have not explored these matters, however, this is an excellent and worthwhile introduction.

A couple of concerns are worth mentioning.  It’s a fairly skinny book, at around 100 pages of text.  I imagine this has to do with the targeted audience; I found myself wanting deeper exploration in several areas, but a shorter work probably prevents many who should read this from being scared off.  About 3/4 of the way through, I was worried Simon-Peter was not going to mention some of the central themes of the so-called New Perspective on Paul, which has been largely shaped by the concerns she raises.  Near the end she gets there, writing:

“The point is that we are so accustomed to seeing Paul refracted by Luther’s fights with the church, that it’s difficult to see and hear Paul on his own terms.” (80)

That said, I would have liked to have seen more engagement with this literature reflected in her endnotes (folks like Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, and Doug Campbell come to mind).  Instead, she relies a bit heavily on Amy-Jill Levine (an excellent source, to be sure), particularly her Jewish Annotated New Testament.  A couple of times Simon-Peter references less than impressive sources such as the notes or introductions from the NIV Study Bible or New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Her argument would be bolstered by reckoning with what Lesslie Newbigin called “the scandal of particularity,” which helps explain why 21st century people find the concept of chosenness so deeply offensive.  Likewise, some engagement with Barth’s concept of election (in which election becomes about Jesus rather than double predestination of the “true church” in today’s aggressive neo-Calvinism) could be fruitful in her attempts to connect Israel’s vocation to the Church’s mission.

Simon-Peter does some of her best reflection when making use of interlocutors such as NT Wright and Diana Butler Bass. Her writing style is easy to read and informal, and she uses enough humor to keep you interested.  Occasionally her language is a bit imprecise or unexplained (for instance, on p. 86 she uses the phrase “universal salvation” in passing with no elaboration). By and large, though, these are minor quibbles with an otherwise well-done book that serves an important role in the current conversations between Christians and Jews.

The Jew Named Jesus addresses questions that are too often ignored and mishandled.  Centuries of getting these things wrong laid the groundwork not only for vicious anti-Semitism in Europe and America, but for the near-extermination of the Jewish people at the hands of baptized Christians.  Much is at stake here.  As a pastor, I still get asked some of these questions regularly.  After a recent trip to Israel, more than one parishioner asked me, “How could someone live over there, see all those places, and still not believe in Jesus?” Early in my ministry, I watched in horror as a pastor performed a clunky Messianic seder** at a youth group meeting complete with an altar call and everything (I later discovered that the UM Book of Worship instructs, rightly so, that such celebrations are disrespectful unless led by a Jew).  Worse still are the blatantly racist comments one still hears on the mouths of too many churchgoers, at least here in the Bible Belt.

But such misunderstanding and ongoing division will not endure into the eschaton.  Simon-Peter’s closing chapter, “A New Heaven and A New Earth,” may be her best.  “Something more powerful than ‘us versus them’ awaits us,” she says hopefully in the concluding pages. (102)  Amen, and come, Lord Jesus. We your people – both the branch and the “wild olive shoots” –  await your Kingdom. (See Rom. 9-11, which Simon-Peter uses several times.)  Help us to anticipate it, celebrate it, and lean into it now.

*A copy of this book was provided to the author for the purposes of review.

**My favorite line from the book confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine about Messianic Judaism: “They seemed to me to be no more than Evangelical Christianity covered with a patina of Hebrew.” (101) She goes on to say that Messianic Judaism has matured greatly in recent years, which I long to see confirmed myself.  Nonetheless, that line caused me to laugh our loud.