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The Gospel and the Greeks


The gods of Greece and Rome were anything but benevolent.

The gods were envisioned as the supreme authorities over different areas of life. Whenever you entered a god’s sphere, you would perform a sacrifice to acknowledge the god’s authority in the hopes that the god would not crush you for trespassing in her or his area of authority.

Mostly, you wanted to avoid attracting the god’s attention. Even getting the favor of a god was dangerous, since your divine patron inevitably had enemies who would make your life miserable for having the support of their rival.

And they did not expect the gods to provide them with any kind of afterlife worth mentioning. Your afterlife was almost certain to be dark, cold, and miserable.

That was the worldview of Crete in the first century, where Paul had left Titus to lead the newly founded Christian church. And it was in that cultural environment that Paul wrote:

[W]hen the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Think of what this must have meant to people who grew up with the Greek gods. Paul describes God in terms of goodness, loving kindness, mercy, grace, as having washed us of our guilt purely out of his love and grace, as having poured out the Holy Spirit on us richly, and as the one who has made us his own heirs and given us eternal life! This message must have been unimaginable to people used to the pettiness and vindictiveness of the Greek gods.

I can only imagine how amazing they must have found the Good News, and how much they must have appreciated it considering everything their culture said about the gods and the afterlife. Is it any wonder that they were willing to face martyrdom for the hope of the Gospel?

The question for us is, do we take grace for granted? Do we appreciate just how good the Good News really is? What price would we be willing to pay for the Gospel given how we feel about it?

Good Friday

The Weeping Sky

The icy, grasping hands of fog
Grip every barren, gnarled tree.
Their shadows in a stagnant pool
Like iron bars encompass me
The fog surrounds my breaking heart,
Veils even Heaven’s constant light.
My eyes turn back to Earth below,
Where what is true cannot be right.

Now Goodness dies by Hate betrayed,
So every cloud in heaven weeps,
Descending to a muddy grave,
The pool in which my spirit sleeps.
The shining teardrops of the sky
Descend to taste the parched earth’s pain,
To bind the earth with Heaven’s love,
A chain of ripples forged in rain.

The teardrops soak an ancient tree
To turn its bark to mournful black
As purest water turns to mud
And sinks, no hope of turning back,
For Beauty lies, forever scarred,
And Innocence is stained with sin,
Eternal ruler, helpless slave
They mix and die as lives begin.

Weep for your maker, distant clouds.
His blood now soaks the earth like rain.
On icy mud His love pours down
And carries off my heart’s black stain.
A single bird’s cry chimes out clear,
A bell that lifts my eyes to see,
When every hope seemed drowned in fear,
White flowers on the twisted tree.

–Elizabeth Sunshine

(If you want to understand the imagery better, Elizabeth explains it in her blog post.)

The Benedict Option

Much has already been written about Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, a great deal of which reflects the preconceptions of the reviewers more than the contents of the book. Here is my take on it.

The Big Picture

Dreher’s starting premise is that the culture wars are over, and those holding to traditional values have lost. Dreher expects the political and cultural environment to become increasingly hostile to people of faith. His solution is to learn lessons from Benedictine monasticism to help us develop community structures that will enable us to bring up our children in the faith and will provide mutual support in the event of job loss or persecution for living by Christian ethics. Contrary to many reviewers, Dreher is not advocating a complete withdrawal from culture or politics, but instead is arguing for the development of intentional communities, whether formal or informal, that can stand as an alternative to the mainstream culture, enable us to raise our children in the faith, and attract others to the Kingdom.

Looking at the Details

A few specific points are worth noting.

  1. Dreher’s Account of How We Got Here. Dreher’s analysis of contemporary culture is powerful and largely compelling. His history is not. If you’re interested in why, keep reading. If not, skip to point 2.

Dreher offers a fairly common explanation of the roots of the crisis focused on a medieval philosophy called nominalism. Nominalists did not believe that things have a common nature, though they may have similarities with each other. For example, dogs have similarities to each other based on biology, but they do not have a common canine nature. Dreher claims that nominalism replaced realism as the dominant philosophy in Europe by the fifteenth century, with disastrous effects today. Yet this is simply false. Aside from the question of whether nominalism leads where he says it does (a direction medieval nominalists would have rejected), nominalism was popular only among Franciscans and mostly in Germany and England; elsewhere, realism dominated, and at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, the realist position won in the Catholic world. So no, nominalism did not overturn realism.

He makes a similar mistake with Pico della Mirandola, the Renaissance thinker that popularized the ancient Greek quotation, “man is the measure of all things.” In context, this does not mean what Dreher takes it to mean. Pico believed that the world consisted of a Great Chain of Being from God to the lowest created things. Man’s unique dignity was that by choosing what we love, we can determine our own place in this hierarchy: if we choose to love God, we can rise higher than the angels; if we love gold, we descend below the level of the beasts. In this way, we “measure” the whole hierarchy of being; we can span the full range of the creation by our choices and our love. So no, Pico’s philosophy does not lead to secularism or cut God out of the universe and human life. It may have been misused that way by nineteenth century historians (whom Dreher follows), but that development is much later than Dreher realizes.

There are other examples I could cite, but like many other Christian social critics, the further back in time he goes, the worse his history gets.

  1. The Title. Dreher’s choice of Benedictine monasticism as a model for today is based on a quotation from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who said that Western culture has lost its way, and that that people who want to live a life of traditional virtue will need to withdraw from mainstream society in much the way St. Benedict and his monks did in the sixth century. Yet though Benedict’s Rule and Benedictine spirituality have much to recommend them, Dreher ignores the single most conspicuous element of the Rule: it has the monks living in a closed community which may exercise hospitality, but otherwise has little to do with outside world. In playing off MacIntyre’s comment, Dreher has led many of his critics into the logical assumption that his proposal involves withdrawal from the world. Dreher himself says over and over that this is not his intention, but his choice to discuss his ideas in the context of monasticism has contributed to the misunderstanding of what he is saying.
  2. What to Do. Dreher’s concrete suggestions about what we should do are wide ranging and well thought out. He deals with politics, the church, community, education, work, sexuality, and technology, in many cases using concrete examples of groups that influenced his thinking in these areas. This is the most important and valuable part of the book. My summary would be, take your Christian faith seriously and make it the center of your life without compromise. While I do not agree with all of his specific recommendations (and, I suspect, neither will most readers), they are all worth serious consideration. Even if Dreher is wrong about the trajectory of the culture, he raises important challenges to the complacent, comfortable cultural Christianity in America. And if he’s right, we are going to need the kind of intentional community he describes if Christianity is going to survive in America. (And before you tell me that God will preserve the church, central Asia once had a strong Christian presence that was exterminated by the Mongols after their conversion to Islam, and for the last 600 plus years the church has been almost entirely absent in the region. What makes us think it couldn’t happen here? The church does not rise and fall on America, or for that matter, on Western culture.)

The Bottom Line

The Benedict Option is a challenging book that should inspire some soul searching among American Christians. It should also spur some creative thinking about ways we should be living as Christians in the world. I would recommend reading it with some serious friends who are interested in action, not just ideas, debates, or complaints. Just don’t learn your history from it.

Broken Links

Breakpoint is in the process of reorganizing its website, which meant that all of the links to the Colson Center and to Breakpoint at Every Square Inch became inactive. I have repaired them so that they should all work with the current state of the Breakpoint website. Unfortunately, the change over to the new article organization at Breakpoint is not yet complete, so more links will be broken over time. I will do my best to repair them as soon as possible, but if you find some that are not working, I ask you to do two things: first, be patient, and second, let me know which links aren’t working and I will repair them as quickly as I can. Thanks for your patience!

Refugees and the Bible

There is a lot of discussion among Christians currently about immigration policy and the Bible. Mostly, this discussion has focused on either the responsibility of God’s people to welcome and care for refugees, or the need for secure borders and the responsibility of government to protect its people. Both are legitimate concerns, but there is a question that is not being addressed: what are the responsibilities of immigrants to the host country?

We need to distinguish two groups. The first, the “foreigners” (Hebrew nokrim), were temporary residents in Israel, generally as travelers or merchants. They were not expected (or frequently allowed) to participate in Israelite religious practice, but they otherwise had to obey the laws of Israel, including keeping the Sabbath. They were to be treated well but did not have the same rights as citizens.

The second group, the “sojourners” (Hebrew gerim), were resident aliens who had settled more or less permanently in Israel. God tells us that He loves sojourners and lists them with widows and orphans as subjects of His special care. Israelites were expected to protect, help, and love sojourners and give them their rights. For their part, the sojourner was to obey some of Israel’s religious laws: they had to keep the Sabbath, to abstain from leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and to observe the Day of Atonement; they could offer sacrifices, and if circumcised they could participate in the Passover. And, of course, worshipping other gods was completely forbidden. They were not to be abused, though they did not have full rights as native Israelites unless they became proselytes to Judaism. (Click here for a summary of the rules about foreigners and sojourners in the Bible.)

Most of the pro-immigration discussions focus on our responsibilities to sojourners, and that is appropriate: we do need to care for the poor, the persecuted, for the last, the least, and the lost. But if we are going to use the Old Testament Law as our model, if it is a reflection of God’s character and the moral law that still stands under the New Covenant, then we need to recognize that the resident alien has responsibilities as well. We are not a theocracy and so the religious dimensions of the Torah are not directly applicable to us, but we can draw some principles from the Torah that we can apply as guidelines for dealing with refugees and resident aliens:

  • They are to be protected from abuse and exploitation.
  • If they are in need, they are to be taken care of in the same way as the native poor are.
  • They are to obey the laws of their host country and not to try to import their own laws.
  • They are to participate in the culture of their host country though without necessarily giving up their own cultural identity completely; sojourners were not obligated to participate in all of Israel’s religious practices, though some were mandatory.
  • Those parts of their cultural identity that are incompatible with the host country’s culture must be abandoned (e.g. idolatry in Israel).
  • They do not have full rights of citizenship unless they go through the process of becoming citizens.

Applying a biblical worldview to the question of refugees and immigration requires compassion balanced with an awareness that if a country loses its cultural center, centrifugal forces will tear it apart, leaving everyone worse off. These guidelines balance two competing interests: protecting minorities and maintaining cultural cohesion. The best way to do this is to recognize that the host country and the resident alien have reciprocal responsibilities to each other, and to advocate for both sides of the equation.

 

More than we can ask or imagine

Duccio_Nativity_NGW_1308-11.jpg

When Christians talk about the Incarnation, they rightly focus on God’s love for us which is so great that He was willing become human Himself, being born into a poor family in an obscure and troublesome province in the Roman Empire, to save ungrateful people who were in open rebellion against Him. It was part of a divine rescue mission motivated by love, grace, mercy, compassion.

If saving us from the consequences of our sin was all the Incarnation would accomplish, that would have been more than enough to give us cause to celebrate. But the Incarnation did much more than that.

With the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity took on a human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ has this human nature permanently. Right now, in Heaven, Jesus continues to have His human nature, and He will have His human nature into all eternity.

Think about that: God now shares a nature with us.

Humans were given a unique dignity and role when God created us in His image, and this had always been the foundation of the high value that God set on human life. With the Incarnation, however, God has raised us up even higher. We are told that God’s people will reign with Christ in the New Heaven and New Earth, that Jesus will share His glory with us, that angels are ministering spirits sent to us, that we will judge the angels, that we are seated with Christ in glory, that we share in the love and intimacy of the Persons of the Trinity, that the Father loves us just as He loves the Son, that we are in God and God is in us, that we have become partakers of the divine nature.

With the Incarnation, God shares in our nature, and so we are connected to God in a deeper, more intimate way than anything else in all creation, visible or invisible.

And that is cause for awe, worship, and celebration.

Advent Devotional: December 24

December 24: These are based on the O Antiphons, traditionally said during  church services from December 18 to December 24; they are also the basis for the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emanuel.” Read the Antiphon to understand what it is saying, then spend some time reading and meditating on the scriptural texts. Then pray the Antiphon in light of your reading of the Scriptures and end by singing the verse of “O Come, O Come, Emanuel.” For more information on the history of the prayers, Click here.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
expectratio gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domines, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver,
desire of the nations, Savior of all people:
Come and set us free, Lord our God.

Isaiah 7:14
Matthew 1:23

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio, privatus Dei Filio.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel!

(1) O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Advent Devotional: December 23

December 23: These are based on the O Antiphons, traditionally said during  church services from December 18 to December 24; they are also the basis for the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emanuel.” Read the Antiphon to understand what it is saying, then spend some time reading and meditating on the scriptural texts. Then pray the Antiphon in light of your reading of the Scriptures and end by singing the verse of “O Come, O Come, Emanuel.” For more information on the history of the prayers, Click here.

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

Isaiah 2:4; 11:10
Daniel 7:14
Romans 15:12
Ephesians 2:14, 19-20

O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart;
O Keystone of the mighty arch of man:
Come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

Veni, Veni, Rex Gentium, Veni, Redemptor omnium,
ut salvas tuos famulos peccati sibi conscios.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel!

(7) O Come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!