Category: Bible and Theology

At the Daily Beast yesterday, Michelle Goldman Goldberg muses on the movement of “the ultra-right evangelicals who once supported Bachmann” over to Ron Paul. This is in part because these “ultra-right evangelicals” are really “the country’s most committed theocrats,” whose support for Paul “is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian.” (Goldberg’s piece appeared before yesterday’s results from Iowa, in which it seems evangelical support went more toward Santorum [32%] than Paul [18%].)

Goldberg shows some theological sensibilities as she tries to trace the connections between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism. Better informed readers will recognize some of the holes, however, as Goldberg describes proponents of Reformed or “covenant theology” as those who “tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back.” Christian Reconstructionism becomes, then, “The most radical faction of covenant theology,” and, “a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.” (For an opposite reading of Paul that criticizes him precisely for not seeking to legislate biblical morality and his “opposition to moral legislation,” see D. C. Innes’ piece over at WORLD, “Christian, why Ron Paul?”)

So while Goldberg is right to note the interesting connections and tensions between libertarianism and Reconstructionism, the connection of Reconstructionism to broader evangelical and Reformed “covenant theology” is rather more tenuous. In part this must be because she relies primarily on Steve Deace, “an influential Iowa evangelical radio host,” for her mapping of the intellectual and theological landscape. But it’s also due, of course, to the impulse to paint any conservative Christian who draws political implications from their faith as a kind of theocrat, whether a theonomist, Reconstructionist, or the latest term bandied about by Goldberg in connection with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, “Dominionist.”

On the one hand, you rarely if ever hear this sort of worrying over the influence of those on the religious Left, who very explicitly want to make an American government in line with their image of biblical justice. On the other, Goldberg’s connection between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism, especially in the person of Gary North, is quite legitimate. This can be seen in more detail and with more nuance in one of the few academic articles to explicitly address this connection, “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Timothy Terrell and Glenn Moots. And as pieces from David Bahnsen and Doug Wilson from earlier this year show, the connections between reconstructionists and libertarians are deep, in part because, as Wilson puts it, “We are talking in many cases about the very same people.”

But as Terrell and Moots point out, the place of Christian Reconstructionism within the broader context of American evangelicalism, and Reformed covenant theology in particular, is hotly disputed. Indeed, write Terrell and Moots, “Some of the most notable critiques of Christian Reconstruction come from within conservative Presbyterianism.” So while Christian Reconstructionism might self-identify as a kind of Reformed covenantal thinking, this doesn’t mean that all Reformed covenant theology is either postmillennial or prone to theonomy. As no less than John Calvin writes in his Institutes,

The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.

This is a sentiment commonly shared by Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theological forebears of Reformed “covenant theology.”

Terrell and Moots conclude with an emphasis on the importance of taking religious motivations and theological convictions seriously:

Recent history demonstrates that the considered prescription of a free society has advanced best when it is a broadly ecumenical and pluralistic discussion. This means that it not only includes secular and religious justifications but also takes into consideration the breadth and depth of religious viewpoints.

So I think we should applaud Goldberg for taking into consideration the religious viewpoints and influences of candidates like Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann, but we should also take her to task for not being a bit more sensitive to the complicated theological landscape. Christian Reconstructionists are a vocal minority, a “fringe” as Goldberg calls them, among politically conservative Christians, but their specific views about biblical laws and punishments are simply not attributable to every evangelical candidate.

Unfortunately this kind of conflation is all too common in the media and popular entertainment. As Russell Moore writes of “dominionism” (and by extension all of the charges of theocracy against conservative Christians) in the latest issue of The City,

the menace of this movement is routinely exaggerated by the media. All this is quite rare, a movement on the far fringes of faithful life. And the scare tactics are made worse by ignorance, particularly among those who don’t understand ‘dominion theology,’ and assume the use of the word ‘dominion’ itself as a call for theocracy as the consolidation of Christian political power — when the case is so exactly the opposite.

And as I conclude in the same issue, “Those in our day who level the baseless charges of suspicion against Christians for undermining the public good deserve to be branded as the real dissemblers and enemies of common good.” Or as Calvin put it, “It is not we who disseminate errors or stir up tumults, but they who resist the mighty power of God.”

I opened my recent Patheos piece on Christians and the “Occupy” protests by noting the proclivity for some leaders to seek cultural relevance by uncritically embracing political movements and trends. This shows that it is a common temptation to allow worldly perspectives and ideologies to determine the shape of our faith rather than the other way around.

A good example of this uncritical stance toward the Occupy movement appears in a Marketplace report from last week, “Preaching the Occupy gospel — or not.” As Mitchell Hartman introduces Rev. Chuck Currie, “Forgive me for what is quite possibly blaspheming, but to hear some preachers from the pulpit these days, you’d think the arrival of Occupy Wall Street is tantamount to the Second Coming.” Currie goes on to, in Harman’s words, draw “a direct scriptural line from the Old Testament… to Occupy.” (One of the commenters on my Patheos piece likewise draws a direct line from the parable of the Good Samaritan to a moral obligation for Christians to engage in Occupy protests.)

For more on the chaplains of the protest movement, check out this NYT piece.

In the meantime, you should also read this more measured response to the Occupy movement at RELEVANT magazine by Alex Marshall. Alex outlines two important ways the church can act positively in engaging the Occupiers, including recognizing that “the Church has the opportunity to act as a ‘laboratory’ for experimenting in solutions to society’s problems.”

Or as Jesus puts it, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Zelda and TheologyAuthor and editor Jonny Walls has announced his latest work published by Gray Matter Books entitled The Legend of Zelda and Theology.

Zelda is a series of video games celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, originating in 1986 with The Legend of the Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System.  It revolutionized video games with its adventure elements and exploration.  Each new installment of the series has advanced its complexity and story line.  The Zelda world maintains its own unique mythology consisting of spiritual elements that don’t match any existing religion.  In fact, the story often mentions multiple Gods and Goddesses.  The Triforce object in the game was created by divine beings and grants the owner supernatural powers depending on whether they have good or evil in their heart.  The pieces of the Triforce symbolize wisdom, courage and power.

The Legend of Zelda and Theology examines elements of Zelda’s mythology from a Christian perspective.  Having not read the book yet, I am skeptical as to how it interprets this exotic mythology and back story as a Christian tale.

Christian Post has an article about the book with comments from Jonny Walls.  In the end, the hope “is that readers will understand that [Zelda]’s themes all point to one source – God, the Creator.”

The book is a compilation of essays from various theologians and scholars examining the connection between Zelda and Christian theology.  One of the contributing authors is Rev. Jeremy Smith of Hacking ChristianityHe posted an excerpt of his contributed essay, included below:

As a child, one of my first lessons in ethics came from a chicken in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In the game, there are chickens called cuccos running around and I would laugh at their cries of fear while swatting them with my sword. One day I was showing my brother this hilarity when, unexpectedly, a hundred cuccos stormed on screen pecking mercilessly at me as they flew by. In an unfortunate coincidence, I was down to one or two hearts of life energy at the time and, to my childhood horror, actually died as a result of my cucco torment. It was a harsh lesson: don’t mess with the cucco…or at least don’t mess with them too much.

It’s also a lesson on ethics because the scenario with the cucco is a question of how to use one’s power. The Zelda universe is primarily a story about good v. evil, of course; but more specifically, it is a story about the use of power. One of the iconic artifacts in the Zelda universe is the Triforce: three interlocked triangles who grant the bearer significant power. The protagonist Link thus embarks on the hero’s journey from powerless to merely underpowered compared to the antagonist Ganon.

The ethical considerations of the use of power are a persistent theme in the Zelda series, in general, and Link to the Past, in particular. In engaging this topic, LttP contains numerous references to the Christian journey and the role of power in our everyday lives. Much of Christian theology is about good and evil, certainly, but also the use of power: the power of Christ to break the chains of sin, the power of Christians to overcome injustice and oppression, the restrictions placed on Christians in authority, etc.

Through examining the hero’s journey in this story, the role of power comes to the forefront: what does power do to corrupt or purify one’s desires? We will outline three problems of this particular world that serve as lenses to our own ethical behavior in the analog world.

The latest game in the Zelda series for Nintendo's Wii, Skyward Sword.

Interestingly, the theme of power that Jeremy mentions here relates directly to Lord Acton’s famous quote:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

Zelda is a work of fiction.  Fiction is self referencing, according to Marilynne Robinson’s article in the New York Times article about what literature owes the Bible:

Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.

I’ll definitely be checking out this book, being an avid Zelda fan and a Christian.  As of this writing the book is on Amazon, but it’s not available for order right now.  What do you think?  Is this book something that can help young people who might not know much about Christianity, or is it too much of a stretch?

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
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Earlier this year Michael Kruse put out a request for suggestions for inclusion in a Commissioning Service for Human Vocation. This Advent season it struck me that the Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” or, “The Carol of the Drum,” is rich in vocational theology.

The little drummer boy has no gold, frankincense, or myrrh, no gift “fit to give a King,” so instead he plays his “best for him” on his drum.

The little drummer boy drumming his best is what makes baby Jesus smile. I like to think that each of his children doing his or her best in their daily work, whether drumming or otherwise, makes grown-up Jesus smile, too. What else, in the end, do we have to bring him but what gifts he has given us already? And what else do we have to show him but that we have been faithful with those gifts, playing our “best for him”?

The Canadian teen Sean Quigley has shown the timelessly relevant nature of this carol in an updated version, which has garnered some significant media attention south of the border as well. (For those of you with Spotify, you can check out the version from the Von Trapp family here.)

Says Quigley, “I want to be able to create music as a career and influence people.”

As Abraham Kuyper elaborates in Wisdom & Wonder, music making is an area of cultural creativity that can have significant blessings on individuals and peoples: “The player or singer translates what you yourself can barely stammer, and does so in rich and fulsome chords, and your soul feels liberated.”

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, December 22, 2011
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Acton President and Co-Founder Rev. Robert A. Sirico asks us to take a breather from the frenzied preparations that lead up to Christmas and reflect on the true meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation. Thanks. to ThePulp.it for linking.

The Magi -- Depicted on a Third Century sarcophagus (Vatican Museums, Rome)

Contemplating Christmas

By Rev. Robert A. Sirico

In a Christmas season filled with noble sentiments such as “peace on earth and goodwill to men,” the remembrance of the joys and sanctity of the family, and the deep human desire for tranquility of heart, how is it that this is arguably the period of deepest tension, family strife and exhaustion?

Although I don’t have hard data to prove it, from both personal and pastoral experience I can safely assert that from roughly the last week of November to the first week of January we experience more stress, arguments within families, and grief, than at any other time of the year.

Much of this is no doubt of our own doing: the expectations we have of ourselves to write every card and attend every party and prepare every dish possible. We go too soon from the joyful welcoming of the “meaning of the season’ into crushing obligations the meaning of which we find ourselves simply too tired to contemplate.

Some of this comes from without: the ease and feasibility of travel and communication, the plethora of products and foods rarely enjoyed by previous generations, and the social expectations of business, friends and family.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said. Our seasonal variation on the philosopher’s wisdom might be, “The un-contemplated Christmas is hardly worth celebrating.”

Rather than descending into the usual rants about how we so often lose the authentic understanding of the season (true enough), would it not be a much more edifying approach to probe deeper the ambiguity, mystery and paradox of Christmas?

The manger contains a hidden proposition of sorts. I have often imagined that were I walking along a Bethlehem back street some 2,000 years ago, and passed by the stable where the infant Jesus lay, there might not have been anything there to catch my attention. I might have been on the way to the marketplace to buy doves for the Temple sacrifice, or perhaps hurrying home with a basket filled with olives, grapes, figs or bread. In any event, it might have taken a chorus of angels or the guidance of a star to distract me from my mundane busyness and the ordinariness of the scene.

The Feast of the Incarnation – which is another way of speaking of the Nativity or Christmas — is all about the Divine Condescension to be “enfleshed” in humanity. The stable would not have been a shrine that night (that would come later). That night it would have been a rather messy, dirty and (at the risk that some inattentive reader will accuse me of blasphemy) smelly place. And that is the point.

Even the shepherds and Magi who were favored with an announcement of the Birth came upon their respective epiphanies precisely from within the context of their usual work: tending sheep and examining the heavens. God found them where they were.

The challenge of Christmas is not to wait for a God who with shouts, trumpets and great fanfare will attract our attention, but to search for the One who comes discretely and must be carefully discerned in the midst of everyday lives.

So, the question I propose is: Where is God at the mall? Where is He at the table of a contentious family holiday argument? Or in the dark quiet room of a daughter standing at her dying mother’s bedside alone this Christmas?  Where is he in the gift-giving? In all the commercialization, so often disconnected from the heart of redemption?

He is there, because He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

The Detroit News ran my piece on Christians, churches, and the Occupy movement today, “Protests, pews not always linked.” One of the reactions to the piece rightly noted that I did not fill out in detail what “the moral and spiritual formation necessary to be faithful followers of Christ every day in their productive service to others” looks like. Another comment at Patheos worries that my advice might leave Christians “complicit with structural injustice.”

One of the important implications of the Christian imperative to occupy the world in all its various calling is the necessity to engage institutions critically and constructively. This is what I was driving at in juxtaposing the views of Chaplin and Fujimura, for instance. But again, what that institutional engagement looks like is left indeterminate.

On this score I’ll cite Michael Novak: “It is not those who say ‘The poor! The poor’ who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who actually put in place an economic system that helps the poor no longer to be poor.” Such economic systems require a variety of institutions, including governmental, profit-oriented, charitable, voluntary, and faith-based.

I’ve been working on putting together a collection of stories from my grandfather. One of these stories is set at Michigan State University in October in the late 60’s. There was an anti-war demonstration happening, which he describes:

A makeshift stage was set in front of Beaumont Tower at the center of campus and bull horns and tinny microphones battled for the attentions of the crowds. The audience numbered in the tens of thousands. The “freaks” were at it again. On stage were individuals whose message was “kill the pigs,” “take this place over,” and “stop the war.” Musicians with peace symbols painted on their guitars sang of disobedience and mayhem. The “pigs” kept a watchful eye from a distance hoping and praying that violence did not break out.

But what happened next is truly interesting:

A gray haired gentleman in a business suit and necktie made his way to the edge of the stage. He stood transfixed by the scene around him. At last he mounted the stage and spoke briefly with the one who currently held the microphone. I recognized him as John Apple, Ph.D., a renowned professor of social science. Dr. Apple took the microphone and turned to face the milling throng. To my amazement a hush fell over the entire scene and only the voice of Dr. Apple could be heard. He cleared his throat and thus spoke the most deadly prophesy I have ever heard.

The professor’s short speech to the protesters was the following:

Ladies and gentlemen! Your ideals are noble! You are MARSHMALLOWS hurling yourselves against a brick wall! You are wasting your energy by throwing yourselves uselessly at the administration! A MARSHMALLOW CAN destroy a brick wall! A MARSHMALLOW can destroy a brick wall from INSIDE! Do you wish to destroy the administration? BECOME THE ADMINISTRATION! Become the presidents of universities! Become the law makers of this country! Destroy the administration FROM WITHIN!

If well-formed Christians don’t occupy our institutions, others most certainly will. And as my grandfather observes, we are today reaping the consequences of those occupiers of various educational and governmental institutions over the last forty years. For what’s happening today at Michigan State University, check out “Despite strong Occupy Lansing movement, Occupy MSU fails to gain momentum.”

In just the few days since my piece first appeared last week, however, it seems that the question of how churches ought to engage the Occupy protests has taken on a more definite shape. In the case of Trinity Church in Manhattan, when the Occupiers’ “interest in setting up an organizing camp on vacant Trinity property at Canal Street and Avenue of the Americas” was met with denial from church officials, “The Occupy Wall Street forces then directed their skills at the church: They took their arguments to the streets. In familiar fashion, police officers converged on the area, standing around the perimeter.”

The Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper of Trinity Church reacted to what followed, trespassing on church property: “O.W.S. protestors call out for social and economic justice; Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years…. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours.”

Ecumenical News International (ENI) reports that Episcopal clergy were among those arrested in the Occupiers’ attempt to take over Duarte Park:

A retired Episcopal Church bishop and at least two other Episcopal priests were arrested on 17 December after they entered a fenced property owned by historic Trinity Episcopal Church in Lower Manhattan as part of an event to mark the three-month anniversary of the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

Livestream video showed George Packard, former Episcopal bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a cross, climbing a ladder that protesters erected against the fence and dropping to the ground inside the property, called Duarte Park. Other protesters followed, including the Rev. John Merz and the Rev. Michael Sniffen, Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Long Island (New York), Episcopal News Service (ENS) reports.

The full story appears below. But it’s clear that Trinity Church and so many other churches in cities where Occupy protests have occurred find themselves being forced to take sides. And its also clear that the Occupiers are no respecters of persons and property. If you are not for them, you must be against them and be ready for the consequences. Ready to cling to your guns and religion, anyone?
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With its subject, use of Scripture, and majestic soaring choruses, George Ferederic Handel’s Messiah is easily the most recognizable musical piece in Western Civilization. It is also perhaps the most widely performed piece of classical or choral music in the West. After hearing a performance of the Messiah, fellow composer Franz Joseph Haydn simply said of Handel, “This man is the master of us all.” Not to be outdone, Beethoven declared, “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.”

The text of the Messiah, compiled from Scripture, was sent to Handel by his friend Charles Jennens and begins with Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” Part 1 of the Messiah deals with the prophetic pronouncements of the Virgin Birth, and the actual birth account taken from Luke’s Gospel. Part II deals with Christ’s passion and his atoning death, his resurrection and ascension, and sending out of the Gospel. Part III is a celebration of the general resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, the victorious nature of Christ and his triumphant reign. It is a bounty of Christian doctrine packed into an English oratorio. Amazingly, Handel composed the work in 23 days. Quoting the Apostle Paul, Handel said, “Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.”

Messiah is so masterful and celebrated it overshadows some of Handel’s other stellar work. Concerning the Messiah in particular, there is quite a bit of information out there about Handel the entrepreneur. Below is an audio story about Handel’s entrepreneurial endeavors and his charitable work tied into the Messiah that aired on PBS in 2009. You can watch the video version of the story here.

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Tim Slover, author of Messiah: The Little-Known Story of Handel’s Beloved Oratorio adds this note,

The Royal Family, fellow Germans from the same region of Hanover, were staunch supporters of his work, but this did not translate into financial security for Handel, as the Crown only sporadically underwrote his opera seasons. When weddings or other occasions called for it, the Hanovers commissioned music from him, but this was never enough to live on, and, anyway, Handel was no court composer. By temperament he was an entrepreneur. He spent several months of every year striking business deals with theater owners, auditioning and hiring singers, and rehearsing and performing instrumental music, operas, and oratorios. His fortunes rose or fell with the public’s reception of his music, and there were lean times as well as prosperous ones.

Messiah, while popular at the time, was certainly not as beloved as it is today. There was controversy surrounding the performance, specifically that such a sacred piece of music would be played outside of the Church and in secular music halls and venues. And while Messiah was composed for charitable purposes, it showcased more of Handel’s entrepreneurial skills and willingness to take risks.

Handel, a devout Lutheran, loved sacred music and believed every word of what he wrote and composed. As mentioned earlier, Handel took a lot of risks with his music because he liked to perform what he loved most. He was bankrupt at various times in his life and had fallen out of favor with the public. Just a few years before the Messiah was composed, Frederic the Great declared that, “Handel’s great days are over. His inspiration is exhausted.” Handel himself was even close to being sent to debtors prison. Before Messiah, Handel conducted what he thought would be his last performance and retired for a time. When Messiah was first performed in 1742, it raised enough money to free 142 men from debtor’s prison so their sons and daughters would not be orphans.

Many readers have of course seen the Messiah performed and may have attended a performance this year or selections may have been performed in their places of worship. It was originally intended as a Lenten piece, but is now largely played in the Christmas season. What is so remarkable about the Messiah to me is not that it is just such a majestic and beautiful work of music, but that it is impossible to separate Christ from the performance. While many sacred works are embraced by a secular world and secular music performers, the meaning of the Messiah is so plain it cannot be overlooked. In fact, Jennens selected the text of Messiah to counter the rising arguments of the deists and secularists of his day.

Messiah thunderously crushes the secular agenda and goals of today or of any period. Theologian Tom Oden offers some profound words on the Western world and Christ in his systematic theology The Word of Life. “It would be strangely unhistorical if the historians accidentally ignored him [Christ] or decided to study all figures except the one who has affected Western history most,” says Oden. He adds that “Western history would not be Western history without him.” Later on Oden observes, “Deeper even than the mystery of his astonishing historical influence is the simpler, starker question that rings through Christian reflection: Cur Deus Homo? Why did God Become human?” Handel answers that so thoroughly, beautifully, and triumphantly with his Messiah.