Thursday, April 14, 2011

Marvel Gospels - Are You a 'True Believer'?

I still have dozens of battered Marvel comics, all packed away in a tidy little plastic drawer. From the Wolverine series to the always-fun What If?, and a host of others, my childhood comic collection was one of the few things that didn't go missing over the years as my dad and I moved sporadically from city to town to suburb; I might not still have a billion favorite shirts, but my comic book collection is safe. So it was with some good memories and just a hint of nostalgia that I started renting comics (graphic novels?) from the local library. Man was I in for a lesson.

#1 Issue - Civil War and Gospel/Bible Harmonies
First, the tie-in series like Civil War are an accidental but awesome teaching tool, and helped me to understand things like the harmony of the Gospels. Or of the entire Bible. When the Thunderbolts, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Iron Man, Spiderman, and Wolverine get their own comic space to tell the story of how the Superhuman Registration Act changed the entire freakin' Marvel Universe, and then with each perspective the reader (that's me) gets a fuller picture of this huge story that crosses over into every superhero's monthly issue, I start to think of Scripture: how many visions, histories, poems, and letters tie together to give us a bigger picture of what is happening in the Bible?

After Jesus: Just like you can't understand Iron Man's take on the Marvel Civil War without also taking a look at the Fantastic Four, it's also hard to understand what happened at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.1-29 unless you also read about the private meeting that St. Paul had with key leaders beforehand, which he wrote about in his letter to the early Christians in Galatia (Galatians 2.1-2). Just like the whole early ministry that happened in Corinth (1 Corinthians 18:1) can't be understood fully until you read about the financial support that Timothy brought from Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3.6,7,8) and Silas brought from Philippi (Philippians 4.15-16) when they joined up with Paul in the city in the first century (Acts 18.5).

Before Jesus: My command of the Old Testament is considerably rusty, since I am a little bit New Testament-heavy. So I'll give one example: Did you know that David (Israeli King) and Joab (commander of the army) were uncle and nephew? That fine-tunes the way that we read their histories in books like Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, and we don't find out about this familial relationship outside of the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 2.12-16

The Gospels: Time would escape me if I started to list all of the things that a Civil War-like 'harmony of the Gospels' would reveal about Jesus' life. Let's do three: (1) The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist in the Gospel of John (John 3.26,30) gets adjusted a little bit when we find out from the Gospel of Luke that Jesus Christ and John the Baptist were cousins (Luke 1.36,57,63-64). (2) During the Feeding of the 5,000 -which we read about in Matthew, Mark, and Luke- St. John wrote that men showed up armed and ready to stage a military coup on King Herod with Jesus as their leader (John 6.13-14,15). (3) It's only after linking Matthew 22.15-16, Mark 3.6, and Mark 12.13 that we really understand how closely the 'righteous' Pharisees worked with the followers of (Idumean tyrant) Herod the Tetrarch to bring Jesus down. Some ethical and theological boundaries were definitely being ignored in order to trap Jesus

So we jump from Marvel cross-overs, with their distinct and almost not-quite-contradictory storylines (one comic shows that Captain America's side won against Iron Man in Civil War; the other shows that Iron Man won over Captain America - only after reading a few other sides of the story do we realize that both are true: Captain America won the battle but ultimately surrendered for the sake of peace). We jump to a talk about Gospel/Biblical harmonies... both as a way of talking about them at all, and a way of showing how the world around us and the things in pop culture can help us in our understanding of Scripture.

'Nuff said.


Monday, April 11, 2011

The Power and the Glory (Mark 1.14-15)

SEAN - The Kingdom has come near in the person of Jesus (Yeshua/Joshua), and His gospel is the radical news of God's forgiveness of sins. Repent and believe! Back in high school, I got into reading a lot of Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller, Shane Claiborne, and Tony Jones - all authors you probably haven't heard of, but they were a fairly big deal at the time. One of their big, common, revolutionary ideas was that the Kingdom of God was the advancing of God's peace upon the earth (basically, things get better and better until the end). Because Mark 1:14-15 can make it look like this news about the Kingdom is the gospel -the central message of the Christian faith- a lot of these authors were subtly pitting Jesus (Mark 1:14-15) against Paul (1 Corinthians 15:1-5), downplaying the message that Jesus died to take the wrath for our sins and arguing that Christianity is sort of like a big social renewal movement. But there is a more Biblical answer.

The Gospel According to Jesus (Mark 1.14-15, With Additions)
"After he learned that the Pharisees knew he was making more disciples than John the Baptist, and when he heard that John had been arrested, Joshua withdrew from Judea and came back in the power of the Spirit to Galilee. A report about him went through all the surrounding country and he taught in their synagogues, being highly praised by all. And he left Nazareth in Galilee and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. From that time he began to preach the gospel of God, explaining: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel!"
-Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John (ESV)
(For note on the text, see end of blog post[1])
Joshua of Nazareth[2] did not go straight from His temptation in the southern desert (Mark 1.12-13) back to Galilee in the north (Mark 1.14); check out John 3.26,33 and you'll find out that He stayed in the south for a little while baptizing and making converts. He only went up north when He started to get more publicity that John the Baptist was getting (John 4.1). The Gospel of John and the Gospel of Luke fill in a lot of the blank space surrounding this post's passage from Mark - so check out John 1.29 to John 4.1, and Luke 4.14-21 for context. It was after Joshua of Nazareth went back up north that He preached about the kingdom and the gospel: He said (1) "The time is fulfilled," (2) "the kingdom of God is at hand," (3) "repent," and (4) "believe the gospel." I'm going to break these phrases down a little bit and explain them.

I Spy With My Foreseeing Eye... the Messiah
In the spring of 29-30 AD, Joshua of Nazareth moved up from His hometown to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee (the sea is massive). The Gospel of Luke mentions that the whole people of Nazareth had tried to throw Him down a cliff (Luke 4.28-29) -which might have been a factor in His change of location- but this move to Capernaum also fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy from the Book of Isaiah about the Messiah (Matthew 4.13-16; Isaiah 9.1-7). The gist of the whole thing was that God would send a great king to the area around the Sea of Galilee, and that king would be descended from the ancient Israeli King David, and would be called 'Mighty God'. Joshua of Nazareth fit that bill (John 20.26-29). So when Joshua said "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand," He was talking about Himself being the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The takeaway? When God promises that something will happen, it will. God keeps His promises.

The Kingdom Is Near
"The kingdom of God is at hand!" - but what is that supposed to mean? Some of my close friends, mentors, and (former) Voice colleague Seth C. argue that the Kingdom is what we call it when the reality of heaven breaks into our world and brings shalom (peace, righteousness - 'good stuff') to the earth. If this is the gospel of the kingdom that Joshua of Nazareth commanded us to believe in Mark 1.14-15, then Christianity is mainly about God inviting us to share with Him in the renewal of the earth. The name for this is the social gospel.

With all the respect in the world to these men, this is not the gospel or the kingdom that I find in the Lord's recorded sayings. Look at how Joshua of Nazareth talks about the kingdom and the gospel in Luke 4.14-21, or in John 3.3-5, which are the parallel passages to this section in the Gospel of Mark. If anything, entering the kingdom is basically the same thing as getting saved and being sure you'll go to heaven. That kingdom was close at hand -in the physical presence of the Messiah, the King of the kingdom- but also the means of being assured one's place in it was close at hand... and it still is; just check out Romans 10.8-9. If this is what the kingdom is all about, then there is no need to worry about a difference between our Savior's gospel (Mark 1.14-15) and St. Paul's gospel (1 Corinthians 15.1-5), because the two will have turned out to be the same thing. The takeaway? The central message of Christianity is that God sent His son to die for your sins, not that you've been enlisted in God's social renewal movement.

Repentance, Dust, and Ashes
Lots of Christians react against seeing other believers live in open sin, and makes them turn into this sort of local chapter of the 'back to legalism' movement. Being forgiven by faith alone is gone - in its place is this notion that God needs to be impressed with your morality before He'll call you saved. A respectable and mature older Christian man just sent me this highly recommended link to a blog post in which the author says things like "if I could remove one word from the Christian lexicon, it would be the word 'believe.'" He goes on to rip apart John 3.16 by putting it into the context of the rest of the chapter where Joshua the Messiah speaks about entering the kingdom. This is something that I did better in another post, with pretty much the opposite conclusion. So if entering the kingdom is only about faith, how do ethics fit in? One of the commenters on the last post that I linked to said it best: "belief is not merely assent to a proposition, but living as if it is the truth. That is belief.

I'm A Believer
Final phrase - Joshua of Nazareth said 'believe in the gospel!' in Mark 1.14-15, but we need to know what the gospel was supposed to be. What did He keep telling people to believe? Lucky for us that Luke and John picked up Mark's idea to write a gospel, otherwise we would never know the answer: Joshua the Lord mostly preached about Himself. He commanded people to believe in Him (John 3.17-18), and preached in synagogues about how He came to 'set people free' and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, which is the Jubilee year when all debts are forgiven (debt being sin in this case - Luke 4.16-21). All of His 'believe this!' preaching in that context is about Himself. So the command to believe the gospel in Mark 1.14-15 is really very close to the isolated words of John 3.16: "God gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will have everlasting life. Our faith is important. It might be the only important thing in life. And it keeps us in a sensitive but good place as Christians where we realize that our deeds are no good, and all we can do is come to God with our faith, crying, 'Lord, forgive me, a sinner.'

A Tale of Two Kingdoms
I never thought that I would be going to bat over kingdom theology, but here I am. There are two clear but different gospels represented in this article. One of them is that God is bringing His peace upon the earth and we're invited to join, and the other is that Christ saves us from our sins and we are called to believe in Him. (1) These don't have to be exclusive. Believing that Jesus is my savior doesn't keep me from helping to create a better world. (2) These can't both be the main point. Either the gospel is about what we do, or about what God did. One of these has to ride shotgun; they can't both be behind the driver's wheel of our faith (insert "Jesus Take the Wheel" country music reference). (3) Legalism against Grace. The idea of Christianity being a sort of social revolution is amazing. But then that social gospel is just about another set of things that we have to do to usher in God's reign, adding to that condemnatory list of things to do at which we fail. The social gospel is really just legalism with an inspiring-sounding shiny veneer. The gospel of belief in Jesus takes all the weight off of you and puts it on our Savior. THAT is something different, but good.
      *NOTES ON THE TEXT: (1) Technically, the parallel stuff from the Gospel of John would have been melded into the composite text. But in this case that extra material is another 4 chapters. I would encourage you to go back and reference the links. (2) Joshua. Joshua and Jesus are different forms of the same name. Calling him Joshua sounds more common, and reinforces that God came as a man with a familiar name and without power or glory to attract people to him. It seems more familiar, more real. (3) The scripture references aren't just links - hover your mouse over the reference, and it should just pop up without you having to click through - try it!

      Friday, April 8, 2011

      Hobbit Spaces and Hobo Inventories - An Apologia for Simplicity

      Earth's population is rising to 7,000,000,000 and rent is skyrocketing in all major cities; it's about time we took a second glance at our living arrangements. The recent trend for homes -and it is recent, compared to one of the ancient Israeli houses- has been to have a room for most things under the sun, to acquire many possessions, and to embrace a sort of urban sprawl in our own dwelling places (I mean, spreading out on the ground level of our homes and taking more space, rather than building upwards for efficiency). It has become customary or expected for us to have a separate 'room' for everything from music to weights, all the way to a garage with all the tools and a private office space.

      The Christian Answer to Home Sprawl
      In our culture of materialist expectations and massive debt -a social pull that, as I began to plan out a home with my future wife, I realized was more common than I thought- our possessions are our identity: we own more clothes than we could ever wear in a week; furniture is seen as a need; entertainment in case of visitors is a must; we must have the newest cookware; the trend has gotten so bad that people have begun joining a 100 Item Challenge because 'stuff starts to overwhelm'. This isn't just an issue of us wildly exceeding the lifestyles of older generations, where people lived in 50-foot square homes and only owned 1 or 2 sets of clothes; this is an issue of us beginning to feel oppressed by the amount of things that we actually own and have to look after.

      So on that note, it's worth looking at what the Bible has to say about possessions and simplicity: 2Chronicles 1:11 notes that God praised Solomon because he 'did not ask for possessions'; Luke 12:15,33 records Jesus' words about life not consisting of possessions; Paul wrote in Philippians 4.12 that he knew how to be content in every situation, and in 1 Timothy 6.6-10 that having food and clothes is enough in life; St. John the Apostle also wrote in 1 John 2.16 that a major category of temptation is 'the pride of possessions'. Take all that together, and the Bible says that our materialism is the opposite of what God wants.

      I'm Convinced - So What Do I Do?
      Luckily, others are starting to come to the conclusion that possessions are a problem. From Dave Bruno at the 100 Thing Challenge, to YouTube hit and 90-sq.-foot-apartment-dweller Felicia Cohen, and finally Jay Shafer who designed his own 100-sq.-foot home, people are starting to come up with real solutions to that materialism which our dream-home aspirations lay bare. Some of the solutions include: (1) intentionally limiting the number of items that we own (reach a certain number, like 100); (2) finding, then using, smaller and lower-rent living spaces; (3) moving in together with another family; (4) buying and living out of a van; (5) having a generational home; etc. God made the human mind a resourceful thing, meaning that there is no end to the variety of different solutions that we might make up

      What Every College Dorm Kid Knows
      If you have stayed for any period of time in one of those small, cramped college dorms which are only slightly bigger than your bedroom back home (except that the dorm is split between two people, making it even smaller), you know how to get by with minimal space and few possessions: eventually you just learn to build up. Everything in that space becomes multi-purpose. You realize that most of the stuff that you own is non-essential. It is this mindset that really helps us as we try to downsize and make life more simple. Getting out of the dorm is not a license to forget everything you ever learned during that experience -you've got to use that knowledge of how to work a living space. If you have ever gone tree planting and lived for four months out of a 7x4-ft. tent, the lesson is only more applicable: most of what we think we need, we could do just fine without.


      Thursday, April 7, 2011

      Mere-O Speaks to Selfish Shame

      I don't do this often, but there is a fantastic post over at Mere Orthodoxy that I think deserves a few minutes of your time. Kevin White has an article up on the site called Credit and Discredit, reflecting on the Evangelical tendency to claim that this or that is "ruining the reputation" of the Gospel simply because it is embarrassing to us personally, when in reality what ruins the Gospel's reputation is actually false teaching. Says White,

      "Think about it. For a young evangelical in a progressive town, especially one who is studying at a highly secularized university or a proudly progressive (theologically, socially, politically) seminary, escaping stereotypes is a real concern. You need to establish yourself as reasonable, academic-minded, and not like those embarrassing fundamentalist stereotypes. And what complicates those efforts more than your classmate gawking at a tract that gives a precise and immanent date for the end of the world? This is not entirely a bad thing, I might add. There is real value in being present and being other-than-expected. But, when the needs of the kingdom seem to line up so perfectly to our personal concerns, it’s time for a good look in the mirror.

      Because there is a bigger problem to the bad (as opposed to merely cheesy) street preacher. Most of them are teaching false doctrine. Seriously false. Cultishly false. Any convert they win is little helped by their spurious creed, unless God miraculously causes them to hear the true gospel instead of the nonsense on offer. But if someone rejects their false message, they will probably assume they have rejected actual Christianity. They are slightly more inoculated against faith in Christ. So, this class of bullhorn roarers spiritually harm their listeners either way."

      It's super unfortunate when we make our reputations more important than God's; let us not pretend that we are concerned about the Gospel's reputation when we are really just embarrassed for ourselves. Here's a little test for us: how many prominent but uncool Christian figures have we taken pains to distance ourselves from? And, on the other hand, how many false teachers have we opposed for the sake of God's glory? I think the answer to those questions lets us know who we're really looking out for.


      Tuesday, April 5, 2011

      Three Loud Heckles for Terry Jones (Follow-Up)

      SEAN - Terry Jones is guilty of murder, deceit, and vanity; this post is a strong condemnation of his actions. At the same time, let's also pray for repentance. PIC: Photo of Florida Pastor Terry Jones at a press conference, Supplied by Google Images.

      On occasion, people will disappoint you. You go through all the trouble of seeing things from their perspective, of letting their best arguments stand out and not using their weakest ones against them, and just when you think you've drawn the line between an activist and a hatemonger -placing your subject on the more noble side of that distinction- they go ahead and let you down. Such, alas, is the case of one Florida pastor Terry Jones. After he swore up and down last November that he would 'not now, not ever' burn the Quran, he proved himself a liar recently by lighting up a copy just a few short weeks ago. The result has been a predictable bloody riot in the Muslim world, leading to the deaths of around 30 human beings at a UN facility in Afghanistan.

      The Sins of Jones (And What We Can Learn)
      Reading the coverage on Mr. Jones, I think that there are at least 3 big ways in which he has disrespected the teachings of the Christian faith throughout this whole Quran burning controversy: not so much that he burned a Quran - Acts 19:17-19 records that early Christian converts from Ephesus burned their old magik books in public- but that he lied, that he knowingly endangered human lives, and that he has been seeking his own glory.

      • Lying. Terry Jones lied when he promised not to burn the Quran, and then did it regardless. Telling the truth is one of the 10 Commandments, and Jesus said we should let our 'yes' be yes, and our 'no' be no. If Mr. Jones promised to say 'no' to burning the Quran, then he should have followed that up by treating it like a no.
      • Pride. Terry Jones did this to get his 15 minutes of fame - to get attention. As I wrote last time, his goals of exposing Islam as a violent religion succeeded: everyone freaked out because they recognized that death and destruction are the rewards of insulting Islam, and no one was acting like it was a religion of peace anymore. People were afraid. So when you pull a publicity stunt after you have already achieved your goal, you're just in it for yourself. The Bible tells us to make God's name great, not our own.
      • Murder. Terry Jones should be held responsible for the killings at the Afghanistan UN facility last week. After vowing to protect American lives by not burning the Islamic holy book, he went back on his word (lying). Worse, he did it to benefit himself (pride). He knowingly performed an action that would result in the deaths of others - that is murder. The Bible commands us not to murder, and -indirectly, although National Post writer Lorne Gunter doesn't see it this way- Terry Jones is guilty of almost 30 counts of murder, if not before the American courts then certainly before the court of God.

      So the lesson for us, is that the Biblical commands not to lie and not to be filled with pride have this really practical outcome. Jones' pride and deceit led to the recent massacres in Afghanistan. Our own pride can also lead to our downfall, or the downfall of others. Mr. Jones' recent mistakes are as old and corrupt as the sin of Cain - these three sins being almost the exact same as those of the Bible's first murderer. Mr. Jones has lied to his American brothers, effectively drawing them out into the field, then orchestrating events which lead to their death, only to shirk off responsibility when confronted. There, but for the grace of God, go we.