Not that Kind of Baptist

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in Advent

Slow Down

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As you read this on your electronic device, know too that I write it on mine.  We are both complicit in our acquiescence to the seductive allure of technology.  According to the Pew Research Center, an astounding 77% of Americans own a smartphone compared to 37% worldwide.  It is not hard to imagine that those numbers will increase over time.

I grew up in a home without a television--a fact of which I am grateful--but the TV's absence  resulted in being made fun of in grade school.  Why?  Because, everybody has a TV, or so I imagined.  Now, seemingly everyone has a smartphone.  And it has only taken ten years for this device to take over our lives.  

I recall the advent (a different sort of advent) of the iPhone in 2007.  Think about how much the world has changed since then.  The ways in which information is processed and disseminated have changed immeasurably in ten years.  We cannot keep up with those changes.  Our ability to process change is outflanked by an ever-evolving technological power.  It outwits us at every turn.  We can't appreciate the impact it has on our minds and souls.  

A recent piece in The Atlantic by psychologist Jean Twenge, the author of the book iGen, contains a devastating survey of what we now know technology can do to young people.  Twenge persuasively demonstrates that increased use of smart phones by teens is correlated to higher levels of depression.   Her thesis is simple and devastating: "All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness."  Put simply, our use of smart phones is literally making us depressed, at least according to this author.  Bundled with this dismal forecast is the decline of thoughtful and civil discourse.  

Instead of carefully studying and articulating reasonable positions on matters of public concern, we have the shoot-from-the-hip mentality of social media where instantaneous analysis is meant to supplant judicious thought.  The central conceit of Twitter was that all communication would be limited to 140 characters.  Complexity was thereby reduced to pithy epigrams; acronyms and screen language became our postmodern "essays."  LOL is now ubiquitous, so too is FOMO ("fear of missing out", as in, fear of missing out on something heralded via social media).   Our use of acronyms in lieu of complete sentences has resulted in much merriment and clever locutions, but I fear it has come at the  expense of  the annihilation of our attention spans.  No doubt this blog will be archived for review by some lone cultural historian as one more artifact of a time in which people wrote in complete sentences. 

I laugh (and simultaneously wince) when I see the word "long-form" on the Internet.  It is meant to denote content that is presumably, well, long.  The default assumption is that all which is necessary to communicate can be said in 140 characters (now magnanimously upgraded by Twitter to 280 characters).  

The Bible is famously "long-form."  It does have its Twitter moments though.  When "Jesus wept," the Gospel of John says laconically what other authors would take an entire book to communicate.  Of course, the larger context of "Jesus wept" is the story of Lazarus' death and resurrection, embedded further in a complex series of theological moves by John.  Abstracted from its original narrative and cultural world, the words might be subject to abuse through an internet meme, perhaps accompanied by an amusing or ironic GIF.  Perhaps that's what ails us, we have lost our larger context.  We simply bounce from one errant thought to another.   

I told a friend this week that I now know one way in which I'll nostalgically talk to my children about my own childhood.  This is a trope of growing older: the wistful way in which we romanticize the past for our children.  In my day, we walked to school in the snow a previous generation might have said, adding barefoot for good effect.  We'll say, in my day, we didn't have smartphones.  Our children will stare at us with wonder.  I keep an old fashioned landline telephone in a storage space, a gift from a friend to memorialize the notion that he could always be reached just by picking up the phone.  What is that?  our children ask.  Can any of us really argue we were worse off before the advent of smartphones?   

I dropped Twitter for Lent a couple of years ago.  40 days without Twitter is about what it sounds like: wondrous.  And yet, after Lent there I was, back to my old habits.  

What has had a more profound impact on your life this year: the advent of the iPhone, or Advent?  The coming of the indium tin oxide and lithium ion battery operated smartphone which hums and alerts incessantly? Or the coming of the One who appeared in weakness and vulnerability? 

The One who came to Earth as a helpless child, unaided by Twitter announcements and social media celebrations. The One who is the "image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation."  The One who "by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities..." (Colossians 1:15-16).   That the question may be posed without sounding insane is a sign of the times. 

Advent is an invitation to slow down.  Purify your mind of the ceaseless distractions of our age.  Steep yourself in the richness of scripture and prayer.  Spend time in Sabbath reflection with family and friends.  Await the coming of the One who came to serve.  The One who has already come as a human, the One who comes daily to our heart, and the One who will come again in glory.   

in Advent

Rejoice Always

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As we approach the third week of Advent, we light the candle of joy.  Each week, we do something counter-cultural and from the perspective of those outside the church, perhaps absurd.  We light candles week by week.  One for hope, one for peace, next week for joy, then for love...and then the center candle: the Christ candle.  Hope, peace, joy, love...these are increasingly in rare supply.  

At our house we watched the Muppets' version of Dickens' Christmas Carol this past weekend and had a lot of good laughs.  There is a deep seriousness to Dickens' tale, namely that the cynicism and greed which tighten their grip on our hearts can eclipse the meaning of Christmas.  Christ is not exactly center stage, but human avarice and ill-motive are in steady supply.  As Ebenezer Scrooge is shown the smallness of his vision through his past and present, he sees how his obsession with money and self has done damage to his neighbor, his community, and his own self.  

He had forgotten how to hope and to rejoice.  He had no peace or love in his heart.  The years of counting money had left no time for counting his blessings.  

Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians writes Rejoice always...for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess. 5:16-18).  This is a tall order, doing God's will.  We are used to turning on the news and seeing that a terrorist has claimed that it was God's will to blow up a mosque or a church or a synagogue.  But the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ apparently wills us to rejoice always.  

Cast a glance back at 2017 before it fades into oblivion.  There were plenty of moments that brought tears to our eyes.  There were 406 mass shootings so far in America.  A record number of hurricanes wreaked billions of dollars in property damage and resulted in the death of many human beings.  The Syrian civil war, which has displaced over 5 million Syrians and killed over 220,000 people continued to rage.  The Rohingya people of Myanmar--Muslims in a Buddhist majority country--are facing genocide.   The pain wrought by sexual abuse and harassment was made vividly real by the "silence breakers," those brave women who told the stories of their abuse and broke their silence, often facing threats of civil litigation and outright denials from their abusers. 

You can add several things to this list of woes.  Our increasing global awareness brings the plight of human sorrow to our doorsteps and smartphone screens.  So what do we have to rejoice in?  Paul, despite his multiple incarcerations, shipwrecks, beatings and travails always rejoiced in the work that God was doing in the ekklesia, the body of believers we call the Church.  He told the church at Philippi "I thank my God every time I remember you."  To the church at Corinth he wrote, "Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you."  He always found a way to rejoice in other people.  

The local ekklesia  is just one of the places where we can rejoice in what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do.  We rejoice, too, when we meet the stranger.  Outside the walls of the ekklesia, after the hymns have faded, the scents of Advent candles dissipated, we meet the stranger.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has taught me in his marvelous book The Dignity of Difference, the "Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself', but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to 'love the stranger'" (p. 58).  Let us rejoice in the church, and let us rejoice in the love God gives us which overflows to the stranger.  

Lately as we pray with the children at bedtime, I ask them for whom shall we pray?  As of late, the prayer is for "the refugees."  Mary and Joseph and little baby Jesus were once refugees, once strangers.  They had much of which they could have been fearful.  But one day Mary burst out into song “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:46-47).  There is much in which we can rejoice.  There is One who invites us to rejoice always.  May we hear the words of Scripture this Advent first as permission, then as command, to rejoice always.  For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  

in Advent

Two Rival Versions of the "Good News"

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As a Baptist Christian, I strongly support the separation of church and state.  Baptist faith began as a flight from religious oppression, hence its leaders' historic support for local church autonomy, freedom from state interference, and the like.  Whenever the gospel is conflated with state power, a huge red flag goes off in my vision. 

So, does the good news of the Christian gospel emanate from God or from the seat of political power?  The Gospel of Mark answers the question emphatically in favor of God.  

Mark's Gospel begins in this way:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark chooses to deliberately begin his account with Jesus as a full grown adult, admittedly at the beginning of his ministry.  Why might the author have chosen such a beginning?  The key is in the proclamation that what is beginning is that heavily freighted phrase "good news" which is taken from the Greek word euangelion.

We tend to think of "good news" in more prosaic terms.  I've got some good news, and some bad news...which one do you want to hear first?  Lost to our ears is the context of the word in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire.  In that world, "good news" had a variety of meanings, but its most interesting meaning relates to Roman imperial power.  

One richly suggestive possibility, often mined by commentators, is that Mark is up to something anti-imperial in his opening words.  The word euangelion can be found in the so-called Priene inscription (located in modern day Turkey) which is thought to date from the year 9 BCE.  The inscription reads:

It was seeming to the Greeks in Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since providence, which has ordered all things of our life and is very much interested in our life, has ordered things in sending Augustus, whom she filled with virtue for the benefit of men, sending him as a savior both for us and for those after us, him who would end war and order all things, and since Caesar by his appearance surpassed the hopes of all those who received the good tidings, not only those who were benefactors before him, but even the hope among those who will be left afterward, and the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the good tidings through him; and Asia resolved it in Smyrna. (translation by Ben Smith)

The Priene inscription is quite the encomium for the Roman emperor: notice the words "good tidings," "savior," "hope," and "god."  The phrase translated above as "good tidings" is from the Greek ευανγελια, simply another form of the word euangelion.  With the coming of Caesar Augustus into the world, who is called a "god," good news is proclaimed throughout the world.  In the logic of imperial Rome, only the Caesar could be "Son of God," but Mark proclaims that the euangelion "good news" is proclaimed not around the birth of Caesar Augustus, but in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.   The phrase "son of God" was by the time of Jesus' birth, common parlance for the emperor.  Therefore, Mark's usage of the title is quite subversive. 

Did Mark intend to begin his Gospel in such a provocative, and as we would say in contemporary parlance, political way?   Scholar Ben Witherington suggests this might be the case, writing that "[t]he birthday of the emperor was celebrated throughout the empire and was the occasion of festivals called evangels. What is different about this announcement is that Mark wishes to begin with Jesus’ coming on the public scene as a significant historical figure, not his actual birth. "  (Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 69–70.).  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament's article on the word groupings associated with euangelion states that

[The emperor] has appeared on earth as a deity in human form. He is the protective god of the state. His appearance is the cause of good fortune to the whole kingdom. Extraordinary signs accompany the course of his life. They proclaim the birth of the ruler of the world. A comet appears at his accession, and at his death signs in heaven declare his assumption into the ranks of the gods.  Because the emperor is more than a common man, his ordinances are glad messages and his commands are sacred writings. What he says is a divine act and implies good and salvation for men. He proclaims εὐαγγέλια through his appearance, and these εὐαγγέλια treat of him...

(Gerhard Friedrich, “Εὐαγγελίζομαι, Εὐαγγέλιον, Προευαγγελίζομαι, Εὐαγγελιστής,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 724–725); see also Craig Evans' article on this subject for an in-depth and excellent analysis

Reading the Synoptic gospels alongside the Priene Inscription, we can see how two rival accounts of divinity in the ancient world were on offer.  One identified divine power with the deified political leader of the Roman Empire; another identified divinity wholly in the person of a poor Palestinian Jew.   Mark's Gospel announces a rival understanding of euangelion to the ideology of the Roman imperial cult: one cannot have both Jesus and Caesar as the Son of God.  The violent conflation of these visions can be traced back to at least the reign of Constantine in the history of Christianity, and has had a sordid history thereafter.  Whenever the specificity of a particular political ideology is said to be synonymous with God's will and purpose for human history, violence cannot be far behind.  

It is impossible to get inside the author of the Gospel of Mark's head.  We can only speculate as to his intention. But, it is quite amazing that he begins his Gospel not with the birth of Jesus, but with Jesus as a rival account of the Son of God.  Mark does so with the use of gospel language  which had some widespread usage in Roman imperial cult language referring to the emperor.  It is as if Mark was saying that we must choose between Jesus the Son of God and those political leaders who anoint themselves as "son of God."  Imagine that?  The cult of the nation state, the hyper-nationalism of blood and soil, the idolatrous conflation of imperial power with divine blessing...all of these things might actually be shattered by Mark's subversive announcement: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God."  Shattered at least from a theological view of human history, but still clinging to life in their violent iterations over the centuries.  

Good news begins with what God has done and what God is doing.  It is not to be confused with the ascendant political party.  It is not to be confused with the trappings of state power and hegemony.  It is God's good news, not Caesar's. 

Caesar's "good news" just ended up being about Caesar: the glorification of the cult of the Emperor, and the totalitarianism of state power blended with violence.  Modern political movements which have resulted in state-sponsored violence against minorities and other oppressed people groups have invariably linked their political identity to the cult of the leader. 

By contrast, the good news of God centers on Jesus' life, death, and resurrection for all people.  The gospel announces forgiveness of sins, liberation, good news for the poor.  It is universal in its scope, counter-cultural in its execution.  Rather than be glorified using human political measures, Jesus was debased on the Cross.  Rather than lording it over others with raw power, Jesus came to serve.  "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45). 

Against the cult of Caesar, may we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  In season and out of season.  Amen.