Not that Kind of Baptist

"An Examined Faith"

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I recently finished Christian ethicist James Gustafson's slim exploration of the intersection of faith and science called An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self-Doubt.  

I find that so many of the themes of this book have lingered in my mind, slowly expanding.  

For example, he notes that most thinking Christians have had to re-evaluate their interpretation of the Creation story in the opening chapters of Genesis based on emerging theoretical models of how the Universe began.  But he also notes that Christians have largely left unexamined how their theology of "final things" is impacted by what we know about global warming.  

How does our understanding of God's activity in the world become shaped by the little pieces of science that we pick up, sometimes in newspapers and TV shows, occasionally in the classroom and in conversations?  

 The books is fascinating and nuanced, but the part that has stayed with me longer is the example that Gustafson uses to frame his entire book.  He quotes from a 1737 letter by the American preacher Jonathan Edwards to his friends about the collapse of a meeting house during a Sunday worship service:

“We in this town, were the last Lord’s Day the spectators, and many of us the subjects, of one of the most amazing instances of divine preservation, that perhaps was ever known in the land. Our meeting-house is old and decayed, so that we have been for some time building a new one, which is yet unfinished. It has been observed of late, that the house we have hitherto met in, has gradually spread at bottom; the cells and walls giving way, especially in the fore-side, by reason of the weight of timber at top, pressing on the braces that are inserted into the posts and beams of the house. It has done so more than ordinarily this spring; which seems to have been occasioned by the heaving of the ground through the extreme frost of the winter past it’s now settling again on that side which is next the sun, by the spring thaws. By this means, the under-pinning has been considerably disordered; which people were not sensible of till the ends of the joists which bore up the front gallery, were drawn off from the girts on which they rested by the walls giving way. So that in the midst of the public exercise in the forenoon, soon after the beginning of sermon, the whole gallery—full of people, with all the seats and timber, suddenly and without any warning—sunk, and fell down with the most amazing noise upon the heads of those that sat under, to the astonishment of the congregation. The house was filled with dolorous shrieking and crying; and nothing else was expected than to find many people dead, and dashed to pieces.
The gallery in falling seemed to break and sink first in the middle; so that those who were upon it were thrown together in heaps before the front door. But the whole was so sudden, that many of them who fell, knew nothing at the time what it was that had befallen them. Others in the congregation thought it had been an amazing clap of thunder. The falling gallery seemed to be broken all to pieces before it got down; so that some who fell with it, as well as those who were under, were buried in the ruins; and were found pressed under heavy loads of timber, and could do nothing to help themselves.
But so mysteriously and wonderfully did it come to pass, that every life was preserved; and though many were greatly bruised, and their flesh torn, yet there is not, as I can understand, one bone broken or so much as put out of joint, among them all. Some who were thought to be almost dead at first, were greatly recovered; and but one young woman seems yet to remain in dangerous circumstances, by an inward hurt in her breast: but of late there appears more hope of her recovery.
None can give account, or conceive, by what means people’s lives and limbs should be thus preserved, when so great a multitude were thus imminently exposed. It looked as though it was impossible but that great numbers must instantly be crushed to death, or dashed in pieces. It seems unreasonable to ascribe it to any thing else but the care of Providence, in disposing the motions of every piece of timber, and the precise place of safety where every one should sit, and fall, when none were in any capacity to care for their own preservation. The preservation seems to be most wonderful, with respect to the women and children in the middle ally, under the gallery, where it came down first, and with greatest force, and where there was nothing to break the force of the falling weight.
Such an event may be a sufficient argument of a divine Providence over the lives of men. We thought ourselves called to set apart a day to be spent in the solemn worship of God, to humble ourselves under such a rebuke of God upon us in time of public service in his house by so dangerous and surprising an accident; and to praise his name for so wonderful, and as it were miraculous, a preservation. The last Wednesday was kept by us to that end; and a mercy in which the hand of God is so remarkably evident, may be well worthy to affect the hearts of all who hear it.”

As Gustafson notes, what was it precisely about this event that prompted Edwards to say it was God's providence at work?  What if all the worshipers had been killed?  What if half had been killed?  When people of faith encounter human tragedy, they are invariably engaged in this kind of calculation, wittingly, or not.  

What disastrous events are we willing to ascribe to God's activity in the world, and what do we give up to purely natural causes?  I would wager a guess that most of us (myself included) have a deep sense that God's love for Creation is not compatible with his directing tornadoes, collapsing buildings, and other tragedies in such a way that people die.  But what are we saying about God when we carve out a bit of providence within that natural disaster?  Say, for example, a child who is found in the wreckage of a tornado destroyed home?  Providence or something else?  Or in other cases, when a person dies, is that also Providence?  

Gustafson urges us to examine our faith.  This is difficult work, but once you begin the examination, going back to an unexamined faith seems impossible.  

 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

The Church’s Role in a Toxic Culture of Partisanship

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You are no longer my mother,” a son tells his mother before cutting her off from his life. The reason? She planned to vote for Trump. 

On the other side of the political spectrum, a supporter of the President disowns his sister for her political views, refusing to notify her that their mother had died of a stroke.

 On Facebook I have become accustomed to see posts from folk who are promising cutoffs from other friends because of their vote in the 2020 Presidential Election.

 A slow acting poison has been released into our water supply, and we are not building up any immunity. That poison is partisanship.

 We are familiar with the causes: some as old as humanity like anger, hatred, and myopia. Some are new: like social media, state sponsored disinformation through technology, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

 As a recent news article reveals, our divisions are based on powerful perceptions about the worst we imagine in the other. “Another recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 8 in 10 Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, while 8 in 10 Democrats believe the Republican Party has been taken over by racists. The report is aptly named titled ‘Dueling Realities.’”

I want to recognize that many are hurting, many are anxious, many are fearful. Because each human is created in the image of God, it is important that we remove those idols in our lives which prevent us from being in proper relationship with others. Rather than erase the image, we might lovingly reveal it.  

How might the Church be faithful during these days of fractured politics?

I want to offer three ways forward:

  1. The church must reclaim reconciliation. As fractured relationships become the norm for American society, the church has a wonderful opportunity to proclaim the gospel that transcends political differences. The church is called to be a community of reconciliation that (when it is faithful) bears witness to the power and mercy and love of the risen Jesus. Reconciliation begins in the church. We must first learn how to love others within our own community across the political divide before we can hope to witness to a fractured world that has no model for reconciliation or repentance. 
  1. The church must name partisanship as an idol. Whatever else the Church post-Covid will look like, I believe faithfulness means that we must name our political partisanship as idolatry. “You shall have no other gods before me,” is the first of the Ten Commandments. We confess that we have worshipped political ideology to the exclusion of God’s claim on our lives. The political is an important dimension of our shared life together, but it is not the most important dimension. It cannot supplant our fidelity to the God who stands over all political systems. If we are partisans of any party, it must be of the Jesus movement.

    There are circumstances when the Church must speak out prophetically to be faithful. The Barmen Declaration, the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other courageous Christians provide inspiration and models for what such prophetic witness looks like. Faithful prophetic witness arises when we seek to honor the claims of a fiercely loving God who is partial to the weak and oppressed and suffering. It ceases to be faithful when we wish to provide our political beliefs with theological cover. 
  1. The church should learn how to speak Christian again. We must recapture distinctively Christian language to describe our mission and our values, instead of being captive to political nomenclature. In America, it is common to view the church (wittingly or not) as the place where your political ideology acquires a light theological justification. That is why the dominant frame for talking about churches uses the political terms “conservative” or “liberal.”

    Marilyn McEntyre’s work emphasizes the importance of choosing grace-filled words that do not alienate, while at the same time remain truthful. Stanley Hauerwas urges us to “learn how to speak Christian.” The words we use reflect the reality we are inhabiting. Let us take care with words. Atonement, sin, redemption, reconciliation, love, justice, mercy, grace, and peace…rather than conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian, socialist, Republican, Democrat.   

Cutoff is always an option for human relationships, and in rare cases it is required for the sake of our body and soul.  However,  cutoff as an instinctive response to political difference is not the Christian way.  I repent of it in my life, and seek a more grace-filled future.  

 We have a lot of work ahead of us to bear witness in times such as these, but I believe it is joyful and life-giving work.

In Christ,
Daniel

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

Trampling Pharaoh's Crown

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As I read over the story of the birth of Moses in the opening chapters of Exodus, it occurred to me that there is a gap--much like the life of Jesus--between Moses' infancy and adulthood.  We get this intensive look at the circumstances of his birth, and then the tape is fast forwarded to his adulthood.  

Where the biblical texts give us gaps in biography, extra-canonical sources rush in with imaginative fervor.  The Jewish historian Josephus, writing of the life of Moses in his Antiquities, passes on a rabbinic legend that Pharaoh's daughter Thermuthis, brought the baby Moses to Pharaoh.  Here is Josephus' account:

(232) Thermuthis, therefore, perceiving him to be so remarkable a child, adopted him
for her son, having no child of her own. And when one time she had carried Moses to
her father, she showed him to him, and said she thought to make him her father’s
successor, if it should please God she should have no legitimate child of her own; and
said to him, “I have brought up a child who is of a divine form, and of a generous
mind; and as I have received him from the bounty of the river, in a wonderful
manner, I thought proper to adopt him for my son and the heir of thy kingdom.”
(233) And when she had said this, she put the infant into her father’s hands; so he
took him, and hugged him close to his breast; and on his daughter’s account, in a
pleasant way, put his diadem upon his head; but Moses threw it down to the ground,
and, in a puerile mood he wreathed it round, and trod upon it with his feet; (234)
which seemed to bring along with it an evil presage concerning the kingdom of Egypt.
But when the sacred scribe saw this (he was the same person who foretold that his
nativity would bring the dominion of that kingdom low), he made a violent attempt to
kill him; and crying out in a frightful manner, he said, (235) “This, O king! this child is
he of whom God foretold, that if we kill him we shall be in no danger; he himself
affords an attestation to the prediction of the same thing, by his trampling upon thy
government, and treading upon thy diadem. Take him, therefore, out of the way, and
deliver the Egyptians from the fear they are in about him; and deprive the Hebrews of
the hope they have of being encouraged by him.” (236) But Thermuthis prevented
him, and snatched the child away. And the king was not hasty to slay him, God
himself, whose providence protected Moses, inclining the king to spare him. He was,
therefore, educated with great care.

Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged
(Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 68.

A handful of European artists in the 17th century treat this theme of Moses trampling Pharaoh's crown, including the ones depicted above by French painter Nicolas Poussin and Dutch painter Jan Lievens.  

As an image of speaking truth to power, it is enduring.  Why are tyrants so afraid of babies in the Bible?  From Pharaoh to Herod, a thread of genocidal wrath connects the stories of overbearing tyrannical leaders to opposing God's people.  The people of God must decide, in turn, whether to trample Pharaoh's crown, or try to put it on their own heads.  The temptation of politics is that we might become more like Pharaoh than servants of the living God.  

 

Citations for art:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mo%C3%AFse_enfant_foulant_aux_pieds_la_couronne_de_Pharaon_-_Nicolas_Poussin_-_Louvre.jpg#/media/File:Moïse_enfant_foulant_aux_pieds_la_couronne_de_Pharaon_-_Nicolas_Poussin_-_Louvre.jpg

By Jan Lievens, The Infant Moses Tramples Pharaoh’s Crown
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18922542
Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

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