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editing

Today is manuscript day. The day I officially send my book to the publisher.

Today is the day I let go after who-knows-how-many dozens of revisions. You would think a children’s book wouldn’t take this much effort. (OK, well I would’ve thought that once.) But when you only have a thousand words in which to captivate a child’s imagination with the story of Jesus,

every

word

counts.

So this is the scary part. Handing it over to someone else and waiting to see what they do with my book. It’s weird. I’ve been on the other side of the editor-author relationship many times, but this is my first seeing it from an author’s point of view.

I think it would be harder to let someone else leave their mark on my book if there weren’t so many sets of fingerprints on it already. There’s my mom, the first to see a writer in me and to nurture that potential. There’s Brian, my first boss at World Vision, the first person who actually paid me to write, who took a chance on hiring a writer without a professional writing background. There’s Sandra, who edited almost everything I wrote at World Vision, who scared the crap out of me a little at first, but who helped me become a better writer and gave me the confidence to put myself out there. There’s Rob, the Welsh writer and actor who saw creative potential in everyone he met — so much so that each time we were together, even the last time when his cancer had nearly run its course, he wanted to know what I was writing, what I was creating. (Rob, I finally have an interesting answer.) There’s Scot, who was the first to share what started as a simple blog post written for my daughter, and also the first to tell me I should turn it into a book. There’s my agent Linda, who has patiently put up with more revisions of this thing than I think either of us anticipated — and has added immense value to each. There’s my wife, who’s done more than anyone to give me the confidence to write — and who has a knack for telling me when something doesn’t make sense or when I should find a better way to express myself, all while managing to make me feel good about it.

And of course, there’s my daughter Elizabeth. This will always be her book. (Though I’m sure she won’t mind sharing it with others, too.) It will always be the book I wrote to try, in my own faltering way, to express to her what God is doing in our world and how she can be part of it. If it does that for her, then I don’t really care how many copies it sells.

(OK, well maybe I care a little.)

—//—

Not long ago, a politician caused a controversy (imagine that) by saying to a room full of successful businesspeople, “You didn’t build that.” By which he meant: You didn’t build that on your own. There were others who helped lay the foundation for your success.

His opponent tried turning his statement into a political advantage, as all politicians are wont to do, even making a slogan (and merchandise) out of its antithesis: I did built that.

Setting politics aside, along with debates over the role of government in our success (or lack of it), I appreciate perhaps more than I used to the truth that “I didn’t build that.” I can see the delusion in thinking that any of us got where we are on our own.

This realization helps me to let go of my work. (Which is not to say that letting go is easy.) It helps me to realize that it’s not really mine to begin with. I didn’t create it on my own. I wouldn’t have been capable of creating it if it weren’t for the investments made in me by others. And I didn’t write this book for myself, either. I wrote it for my daughter and others like her who need to be introduced to the story of Jesus in a more authentic, more compelling way.

So it’s not really “my” manuscript. It’s not “my” book.

(Now if I can just remember that when the time comes for others to add their mark to it…)

Jesus Feminist: a review

31 October 2013 — 1 Comment

Jesus FeministWhen I was younger, I rationalized my opposition to women in ministry by claiming I’d never heard a female pastor who could give a decent sermon. (At the time I attended a Christian college that periodically invited female pastors to speak in chapel.)

It was circular, self-serving logic, I know. I was hardly the most objective judge, what with my my hostility to the very notion of women as pastors. (And the fact that I was 20 and didn’t know anything about anything.)

I’m glad I got over myself — not least because otherwise, I would have never learned to hear some of the prophetic voices God has raised up, who just so happen to have two x chromosomes.

After reading my advance copy of Jesus Feminist, all I can say is Sarah Bessey is one of those prophetic voices. She describes herself as a “happy clappy kind of Christian… who speaks in tongues and lays on hands.” (In other words, we represent different traditions.)

And dang she can preach.

Jesus Feminist doesn’t fixate on everything that’s wrong with patriarchy. While Sarah suggests that patriarchy doesn’t represent God’s dream for humanity (and I agree), she’d rather spend her time imagining another way, discovering what is God’s dream for humanity, and inviting us all to explore it together.

Sarah celebrates women past and present who’ve demonstrated their full membership in God’s kingdom in myriad ways — some ordinary, some extraordinary. She picks up the thread of redemptive movement in the Scriptures and follows it all the way through to our world today. (Because Sarah is someone who believes that “God is still speaking, still moving, still alive, still loving.”)

In the Scriptures, there are at least two kinds of prophetic voices. One is the voice of righteous indignation, raging against the machinations of idolatry and injustice. Then there’s the gentle voice of hope, whispering (or singing) to us about a new reality, a new way of being human, a better way to live.

Sarah is that second kind of prophet. While some of us want to knock tables over, Jesus Feminist reminds us that sometimes it’s better to sit at them, armed with nothing more than a cup of tea (or something stronger), and see if together we can imagine a better way to live, to celebrate each other, and embrace one another as equal partners in God’s kingdom.

There are plenty of writers who can land a rhetorical punch, who can hitch patriarchy to the whipping post and let loose.

Sarah has done something even better with her book: she’s elevated the conversation.

One Saturday when I was 5, I got down on my knees and prayed the sinner’s prayer. I only remember a few details from that day — mostly trivial ones like what we had for lunch.

(Tuna fish sandwiches, in case you were wondering.)

For many Christians, faith is all about The Decision. The earlier it’s made, the better. But if the stats are to be believed, more than half of my friends who prayed the same prayer as kids are no longer practicing Christians.

So maybe it’s time we reevaluate a decision-based approach to the gospel. Maybe we’re shortchanging our kids, who in many cases aren’t old enough to even know what they’re signing up for. Yes, Jesus said, “Let the little children come.” But he also told would-be followers to “count the cost” of discipleship.

When I prayed the sinner’s prayer, all I knew was I didn’t want to go to hell. And I wanted to eat my tuna fish sandwich.

But a decision-based approach also shortchanges the gospel by confusing the decision with the gospel itself. It reduces the gospel to a tool for sin management or hell avoidance.

The New Testament paints a more expansive picture of the gospel. It’s not merely a decision you make. It’s not a set of four spiritual laws. It’s not a wordless color book. It’s not something that can be reduced to a formula or an incantation.

It’s a story. It’s the story of God rescuing the world, bringing heaven to earth, advancing his kingdom. And it’s an invitation to become part of that story, to become citizens of a kingdom characterized by loving God and loving others.

As Scot McKnight writes in his book The King Jesus Gospel,

The gospel is the Story of Jesus as the completion of the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures, and that gospel story formed and framed the culture of the earliest Christians.

I believe it should form and frame ours, too.

Now it would be to easy for me to sit back and just be another armchair critic, judging others for how they’ve sought to pass down their faith. But there’s at least one important thing a decision-based approach to the gospel gets right: the fact that we owe it to our kids to start telling them about our faith when they’re young.

That doesn’t mean we should settle for a reductionist gospel. It doesn’t mean we should employ tactics that border on the manipulative in order to coax a decision from them.

Our kids deserve better when it comes to the gospel. 

Some of the first people to follow God had another way of passing down their faith; and it’s time we rediscovered it. The ancient Israelites passed their faith to each generation by telling their story:

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” (from Deuteronomy 6)

Tell your story.

—//—

Three years ago, I became a parent.

Suddenly these questions — What is the gospel? How do we pass it on to our kids? — took on a new sense of urgency. Suddenly the stakes got very real.

Could my wife and I live our faith in a way that would nurture our daughter’s spiritual curiosity? Could we tell the story of our faith so that someday she would come to embrace it as her own?

Inspired in part by the depiction of the gospel set out in Scot’s book, I began writing my own sketch of this story — the whole gospel story — for my daughter. I meant for it to be something we could read together when she’s a bit older, a first introduction to our story of faith.

About a year ago, I shared an early draft on this blog. Then it got shared on a few other blogs, including Scot’s. A few people said I should try turning it into a children’s book. I’ve always thought I would write book someday. I just didn’t think it would be a children’s book.

But I gave it a shot. With the help of a good friend, I found an amazing agent. Together, we crafted a proposal. Then re-crafted it. And re-crafted it again. Finally, we sent it off to some publishers. And waited.

Then one day I signed a two-book contract with David C. Cook.

(Believe me, there was plenty of nail-biting in between.)

The thing about Cook is, well… they’re awesome. They share this vision for communicating a more holistic gospel to our kids. From our very first meeting, I wanted it to be them. Can I just say? I am SO excited to work with everyone at Cook.

So the first book will tell the whole gospel as a single story — starting with God’s good world, which he made for us to share with him, and telling how God set out to rescue us from exile so he could be our king once more, making the world right and good again.

Unlike most storybook Bibles, it will be something parents and kids can read together in a single sitting. But it’s not a quick fix. It’s not a replacement sinner’s prayer. It’s not primarily a tool for coaxing a decision. It’s something that can help you to begin this journey with your kids, to start telling the story of your faith.

In the end, this will always be the book I wrote for my daughter. But my hope (and prayer) is that it will help a few other kids take their first steps of faith, too.

More details to come! (Including figuring out what that second book will be…)

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Jesus-Feminist-definition

When I was growing up, feminism was a dirty word.

Actually, we didn’t call them feminists. We called them feminazis.

Militant, man-hating, bra-burning radicals who taught literature classes and took orders from Hillary Clinton and outsourced their childrearing duties (assuming they had any children) to some Orwellian, quasi-socialist village.

Then I became a feminist myself.

It started in college, when a friend in my political philosophy class took time to explain to me what feminism actually was. Turns out it didn’t have anything to do with the caricature in my head. (Heck, even the whole bra-burning thing proved to be an urban legend.)

It continued in seminary, when I learned that the arguments used to rationalize the subjugation of women are the same ones that were used to justify slavery a century and a half ago.

Then I fell in love… and found that mutuality offers a better starting point for a happy marriage than hierarchy. (Eleven years and counting.)

Then I became a father… and realized I couldn’t settle for anything less than my daughter’s full equality — in her family, in her church, and in her world.

41yNlmBxf0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I came to believe that gender equality is rooted in creation itself, reaffirmed and renewed in the person and work of Jesus. That’s why I can’t wait for Sarah Besey’s new book… and that’s why I embrace the label Jesus feminist.

I’m a Jesus feminist because I believe my daughter is fully and gloriously human, that she and I bear the same divine imprint, that she is not mine, that she is free to discover for herself what God made her to be, and that the possibilities open to her are endless.

I’m a Jesus feminist because the gospels insist we allow women to sit alongside men at the feet of our Messiah — that is, to take the posture of a disciple. The story of Mary and Martha is not a Sunday school lesson on the importance of setting one’s priorities; it’s a radical affirmation that my daughter has as much right as anyone to call herself a disciple of Jesus.

I’m a Jesus feminist because some of the finest preachers I know are women, including those whose main pulpit is a blog (cc: Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans).

I’m a Jesus feminist because women were the first apostles, the first to witness the resurrection. If not for their courage, vision, and willingness to see what Jesus’ male disciples couldn’t — if not for that, I wouldn’t be a Jesus anything.

I’m a Jesus feminist because I won’t accept a world which turns my daughter into an object — neither the evangelical modesty culture that teaches girls to be ashamed of their bodies nor the hyper-sexualized culture that tells them their bodies (and their willingness to flaunt them) are all they have to offer.

I’m a Jesus feminist because the apostle Paul said there isn’t “male and female” anymore. Just one body, one family, one inheritance in which we all have equal share.

And someday, if my daughter feels a calling deep in her bones to share this message with others — or if she feels called in any other way to lead — I will be right there cheering her on.

Because even though I haven’t read Sarah’s book yet, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus feminists do.

P.S. Go and buy the book when it comes out.

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CNN has a great piece on Ed Dobson, former pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids. More than a decade ago, Ed was diagnosed with ALS. Now, he’s telling his story through a series of short videos called Ed’s Story, produced by Flannel (the same company that did the NOOMA series with Rob Bell).

I’ve only met Ed Dobson once. It was to thank him for a book he published thirteen years ago. In the early 1980s, Ed was an insider with the Moral Majority, the organization founded by Jerry Falwell that made the religious right a force to be reckoned with. Years later, Ed wrote Blinded by Might with conservative columnist Cal Thomas. They argued the church’s quest for political power had been misguided, that there are better ways to effect lasting change.

Ed’s book changed the trajectory of my life post-college. It helped me to imagine a new story for myself. After college, I had an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. and fight the “culture war,” to take up arms in the quest for political power and influence. Ed’s book showed me another way.

Now, he’s showing people everywhere another way to follow Jesus, even in the face of certain death. And he’s proving you don’t need a megachurch, a TV broadcast, or all the other trappings of success to do it.

Debating Adam

19 February 2012 — 2 Comments

If you want to get caught up on the historical Adam debate, which has been prompted in part by Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adamhere are some good places to start…

Christianity Today published a balanced summary last year in their feature article “The Search for the Historical Adam.”

Over on the Jesus Creed blog, RJS is going through Enns’ book chapter by chapter, starting here.

While he doesn’t mention Enns by name, Kevin DeYoung has weighed in with “10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam.” Which, in turn, has generated responses from New Testament scholar James McGrath (“Ten Really Bad Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam”) and Oxford don Timothy Law (“Kevin DeYoung’s Misunderstandings”). Enns has also weighed in here.

(Still waiting for the promised review by Albert Mohler.)

So what are we to make of The Evolution of Adam?

There’s no question Enns’ proposals concerning Adam (and Paul’s use of Adam) are controversial for many Christians. They’re not something we should embrace or reject quickly. Books like these often elicit knee-jerk reactions (from both sides) when something more thoughtful is called for.

Like James Dobson did 20 years ago, I’m going to pass on rendering a final verdict. It’s not for me to say what we should make of Adam. Instead, I want to share three takeaways — two positive and one (mildly) critical.

1. Inspiration as incarnation

Some have accused Enns of demonstrating a low view of Scripture and a near-total disregard for its divine inspiration. If Genesis is “wrong” about creation, (I would argue it’s not a matter of Genesis being right or wrong because Genesis doesn’t seek to address scientific reality), and if Paul was “wrong” in some of his assumptions concerning Adam (though not in the point he was using Adam to make, Enns would say), then we are left with an unreliable, uninspired Bible.

But Enns himself never goes there. He repeatedly talks about the Bible’s divine inspiration in ways that should give responsible critics pause before lobbing these rhetorical grenades.

Rather, what Enns does is connect scriptural inspiration to divine incarnation — which, I gather, is the point of his previous book, Inspiration and Incarnation (though I haven’t read it).

God revealing himself in the written word, the logos, is fundamentally an act of incarnation. And incarnation — whether it’s God finding a way to contain infinite divinity within finite humanity or finding a way to reveal infinite truth through finite language — is an act of divine self-limitation. Or divine condescension, if you like.

As Enns writes in the final section of The Evolution of Adam:

Even the expression of deep and ultimate truth does not escape the limitations of the cultures in which that truth is expressed. [God accommodates] himself to the views of the time.

There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, so human, so much a part of this world: it looks this way to exalt God’s power, not our power…

The ‘creaturelines’ of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome so that God can finally be seen. Rather… we can only see God truly because of the limited, human form he has chosen as a means of revelation, and if we try to look past it, we will miss everything.

According to Enns, the biblical writers’ knowledge of the universe was limited by the time and culture in which they lived. (No doubt our knowledge is similarly limited in ways we don’t fully realize.) Evidently, when God chose to speak into THAT time and culture, he didn’t feel the need to correct every false assumption about cosmology, origins, etc., because he had a much more important story to tell.

The fact that the Bible reflects the cosmological assumptions of its day isn’t a problem for inspiration — unless you attribute to God a compulsion to correct every false assumption people have, much like the overzealous parent who nitpicks a child’s pronunciation just as she’s learning to talk.

Disagree with Enns about Adam if you like, but to accuse him of holding a low view of scripture is, in my opinion, a red herring.

2. Creation as cosmic temple (and a few other things)

Astronomy, anyone?

Using Genesis 1-2 to wage a scientific battle is like using Van Gogh’s Starry Night to make a point about astronomy. There is little to be gained — and a good deal that will be missed.

For example, when we lay Genesis 1 next to other ancient creation stories like the Enuma Elish, we see more clearly the polemical punch our story packs. Genesis 1 effectively neuters the gods of the ancient pantheon. Sun, moon, and stars are no longer gods themselves, but merely created objects, stripped of their supposed divinity. Genesis 1 rather ingeniously suggests that God doesn’t even need the sun to provide light — he’s more than capable of that himself! Genesis 1 is, at its core, a profoundly subversive text.

Genesis 1 also reveals the true purpose of the cosmos: to serve as God’s dwelling place. We’re so used to thinking of God existing outside of time and space that we have a hard time wrapping our minds around this one.

Enns observes that Genesis 1 follows the pattern of a seven-day liturgical week, which for its original Jewish audience would have brought to mind Sabbath and sanctuary. Enns notes the many parallels between Genesis 1 and the creation of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31. And he draws an important contrast between Genesis and the Baal creation myth:

There is no temple in Genesis 1 constructed after creation to celebrate God’s victory over chaos; the created world is his temple.

Which connects nicely to the resolution of the biblical drama in Revelation, where God returns to his cosmic temple once more, this time to dwell among his people forever.

Meanwhile, in Genesis 2, we see a striking parallel to Israel’s story. Both Adam and Israel are “hand-made” by God. Both are given a piece of land to tend on God’s behalf. Both are given a law to govern their relationship to God. Both fail to keep their end of the bargain, and consequently both are subjected to exile — exile and death being nearly synonymous in the Old Testament.

There is so much good stuff to be explored in Genesis 1-2 once we get over our scientific hang-ups. There is deep truth to be found here, if we’d stop trying to make scripture answer questions it has no interest in answering.

If nothing else, the fact that these stories were carefully arranged to make specific theological points should serve as a clue that their writers were not particularly interested in providing a literal, scientific, or purely historical description of events. They would give us so much more — if we would just let them.

3. Death as the last enemy

I do have one criticism of The Evolution of Adam that I’ll share here. On the next-to-last page, Enns writes, “Death is not the enemy to be defeated.” His point is that some of the things we think of as bad (such as death) need to be revisited in light of evolution.

I agree… up to a point. Death in some form seems to be a vital element of creation and not just a foreign entity. Call it “the circle of life.” Or as Rob Bell once said, “Death is the engine of life.” In the plant world, for example, death and decomposition are vital to creating and sustaining new life.

There’s nothing in Genesis to suggest that humans were immortal by nature prior to the fall. In fact, they needed to eat from the tree of life precisely because they weren’t immortal. Death was woven into our DNA from the beginning.

Immortality, anyone?

And it’s a good thing too, given the reality of sin. I mean, to live forever in a progressively decaying body, now cursed by sin and sickness — who in their right mind would want that? (Unless, of course, you’d like to end up as Lady Cassandra from Doctor Who.)

Still, in a more ultimate sense, death is an enemy to be defeated. Or as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We’re all made to die. The question is whether death will have the last word. And the whole point of the redemptive story — of Christ’s death and resurrection — is so this question can be answered with a definitive, resounding no.

I don’t think Enns would disagree, which is why I characterized this as a mild criticism. In any case, whatever you make of Adam, Enns’ book is one that deserves to be read and considered carefully.

When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of James Dobson broadcasts. Now, Dobson isn’t known for expressing his views with a great deal of ambiguity. He tends to see most issues in black and white, and he expresses himself clearly.

But I remember one broadcast 20 years ago, where he moderated a debate between a theistic evolutionist and a young-earth creationist. At the end, Dobson declined to render a verdict. He said we ought to leave room for both views.

At the time, I was convinced that creation had taken place over six literal days, roughly 6,000 years ago. For some reason, though, I was glad to hear someone say that how you interpret Genesis shouldn’t be a litmus test for orthodoxy. To this day, I’m still grateful to Dobson for that broadcast.

Since then, I’ve met a number of people whose scientific credentials are far more impressive than mine (which is to say they have some), who accept the theory of evolution, and who are every bit as devoted to Christ as I am.

Like Peter Enns, author of The Evolution of Adam, I’m no scientist. I’ll let others debate the scientific particulars of the universe. I’m more interested the theological or biblical merits of young-earth, six-day creationism. And I’ve come to opinion that there aren’t that many.

Peter Enns approaches the issue of human origins — specifically, the question of Adam’s historicity — from a biblical/theological point of view, rather than a scientific one. Along the way, he questions many widely held assumptions.

Summing up Enns

The Evolution of Adam highlights some of the major problems with a literal reading of Genesis. For example, the fact that it contains two creation accounts which aren’t easily harmonized. Or the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of “days” well before the sun and moon are created on day 4 — which should be a strong hint that the writer is making a theological point rather than a scientific one. And the list goes on.

Again and again, Enns takes us back to the issue of context. Most Christians today accept the Bible has to be read in context, even if we’re not always very good at doing this. But Enns raises the stakes. He wants us to revisit the theological and cultural context of Genesis 1-2. He wants us to think about how these stories came into being — and why.

Enns notes the many parallels between Genesis 1-2 and other creation stories, like the Enuma Elish (Assyrian) and Atrahasis (Babylonian). He argues that these myths predate the Genesis narrative, though the relationship between them is complex — not a simple matter of drawing a causal line from one to the other.  If he’s right, this has profound implications for how we understand the theologicalpurpose of Genesis 1-2. The biblical creation stories may be, in part, a polemical response to Israel’s conquerors (Assyria and Babylon). In their final form, they are Israel’s attempt to make sense of its own story, in light of the exile. Enns writes:

The Genesis creation narrative we have in our Bibles today, although surely rooted in much older material, was shaped as a theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile. These stories were not written to speak of ‘origins’ as we might think of them today (in a natural-science sense). They were written to say something of God and Israel’s place in the world as God’s chosen people.

But Enns has bigger primordial fish to fry. Namely, what do we do about Adam? This might not be much of an issue, if it weren’t for Paul. After Genesis 1-4, Adam disappears from the Old Testament record almost entirely. The idea of Adam as the originator of universal sin and death is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

So why does Paul say in Romans 5, “Just as sin entered through one man [Adam], and death through sin”? Enns devotes the entire second half of The Evolution of Adam to this question.

Enns’ argument rests, in part, on Paul’s use of the Old Testament — which is creative to say the least. If you have a reference Bible, try looking up some of the Old Testament passages mentioned in the New Testament. You’ll notice how time and again, Paul radically reinterprets the Old Testament to suit his purpose.

It’s often argued this was Paul’s prerogative, since he was writing inspired scripture. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that Paul wasn’t the only one to use the Old Testament this way. He is part of a much larger rabbinic tradition that did this sort of thing all the time.

According to Enns, Paul’s just doing what his people have always done: “reworking the past to speak to the present.” This is what the authors/editors/compilers of 1-2 Chronicles did, for example, retelling Israel’s story from a post-exilic vantage point. It’s what rabbinic scholars started doing with the rest of the Old Testament in the period leading up to Christ.

What makes Paul unique is that he reinterprets everything in light of Jesus’ resurrection — which (unlike Adam) was recent history for Paul, having occurred just 25 years before he wrote Romans.

For Enns, the loss of a historical Adam doesn’t in any way diminish the truth of Paul’s main point in Romans 5:

Even without a first man, death and sin are still the universal realities that mark the human condition… The need for a savior does not require a historical Adam.

Enns also warns that by getting hung up on one detail of Paul’s argument (Adam), we risk losing sight of Paul’s larger purpose for writing his letter to the Romans:

Paul’s goal is to show that what binds these two utterly distinct groups [Jew and Gentile] together is their equal participation in a universal humanity marked by sin and death and their shared need of the same universally offered redemption.

For Enns, then, the fact that we are in this plight of universal sin and death is more important than how we got there. And Jesus as the answer to our plight is far more important than the idea of Adam as the literal, historical originator of our plight. Jesus and Adam, Enns writes, are not “characters of equal historical standing.” Christ is the one through whom all of history must be reinterpreted and reimagined.

Or as C.S. Lewis once wrote, Christ is the one through whom “this great myth became Fact.”

Rethinking Adam? (part 2)

1 February 2012 — 4 Comments

I’m sure Pete Enns knew what he was getting into when he published The Evolution of Adam last month. As Scot McKnight said in his endorsement, this is a guy who’s earned his “battle scars.” (Enns was let go from Westminster Theological Seminary for his previous book, Inspiration and Incarnation.) 

Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler has already promised a response to Enns’ book. (I gather there’s not much chance of him endorsing it.) Ken Ham, president of the young-earth advocacy group Answers in Genesis, beat Mohler to the punch with a scathing review in which he accuses Enns (and his publisher) of heresy. Citing 2 Peter 3:5, Ham charges that Enns is “willfully ignorant.” (Though speaking of willful ignorance, it should be noted that 2 Peter 3:5 is a rebuke to those who deny the second coming of Christ, not those who question how God brought the universe into being. Context matters.)

There’s a reason The Evolution of Adam is generating a lot of heat. It’s not so much a book about evolution and creation, or science and the Bible, as it is about this foundational question:

What kind of book do we think the Bible is?

For many believers, questioning the “traditional” view of creation (Enns will argue it’s not as traditional as we think) is to question our view of the whole Bible, its divine inspiration, and its very reliability.

A friend of mine framed the discussion like this: do we let the “science story” drive our reading of the Bible, or the other way around?

It’s a fair question. But is it the right one?

Most evangelicals accept the Bible is not a scientific textbook. Still, it’s commonly argued that Scripture, to the extent it addresses natural phenomena, is scientifically accurate.

But what if the Bible depicts a flat, motionless earth? What if its human writers held pretty much the same cosmology as everyone else in the ancient Near East — namely, that the earth is a flat, circular disc covered by a dome of sky, the whole thing surrounded by water? What if the Bible assumes the sun rotates around the earth?

In fact, this is precisely how the biblical writers understood the cosmos. Exhibit A: two articles by Paul Seely, published in the Westminster Theological Journal (hardly a bastion of liberalism). One is The Geographical Meaning of “Earth” and “Seas” in Genesis 1:10, and the other is The Firmament and the Water Above.

Or you could just read passages like Daniel 4:10, which describe a large tree that is “visible to the ends of the earth.” Even as hyperbole, this statement doesn’t make any sense if the author understood the earth is a sphere. Or how about Psalm 104:5, which speaks of an immovable earth?

Or what about the day “the sun stood still” in Joshua 10?

Galileo Before the Holy Office (Robert-Fleury)

When science began to question geocentric cosmology in the 16th century, the Church saw it as an assault on the integrity of the Bible. Galileo was put under house arrest. Kepler’s books were banned.

Even today, you can find flat-earthers and fixed-earthers who say they’re just being faithful to the Bible — to a literal reading of the Bible, that is. They maintain we shouldn’t let science (“so-called science,” they might say) shape our reading of holy Scripture.

Following a period of painful adjustment, however, the vast majority of Christians came to accept what science was telling us — namely, the earth is a sphere that rotates around the sun, not the other way around.

Ask a believer today how they reconcile Joshua’s claim that “the sun stood still” with scientific fact, and they might tell you the Bible is speaking idiomatically about God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf. Or that it was simply putting things in language that made sense to an ancient audience. Most would accept that whatever else Joshua 10 means, it’s not trying to make a scientific point.

To which I say: EXACTLY.

Given that the biblical writers held the same cosmology as everyone else in the ancient world, if we were to submit their descriptions of the earth to scientific scrutiny, we would be forced to conclude they got some things wrong.

But if they weren’t trying to make a scientific point, then it’s no use judging the merit or the inspiration of what they wrote on the basis of its scientific accuracy.

To ask which story — science or the Bible’s — ought to drive our worldview is asking the wrong question, because they are two different stories about two different things.

So as we turn to the issue of Adam and the origins of the universe, the million-dollar question is this: if we accept that passages like Joshua 10 and Psalm 104 should not be read scientifically (even though it took a couple hundred years for us to get there), why should we insist on a scientific reading of Genesis 1? 

Yesterday, N.T. Wright rounded out the January Series at Calvin College by proving he doesn’t mind saying things that would make most people squirm.

N.T. Wright at the January series (Mlive.com)

The theme of his talk was “Why we’ve all misunderstood the gospels.” For him, the gospels are, at their core, a proclamation of theocracy, the news that God has actually become king.

Most of us don’t care for the word theocracy, and for good reason. You only have to pick up a history book (or visit Wikipedia) to see what happened last time the church held that kind of power. And before you think, Thank God that’s all in the past, take a look at the movement known as “Christian reconstructionism” or “dominionism” in America (as represented by groups like WallBuilders). Or the controversial anti-homosexual bill still being considered by Uganda’s parliament.

But Wright means something different by theocracy. He unpacks this by identifying four key themes from the gospels, and he says most of us have only heard two of them.

He starts with one of the overlooked themes: Jesus as the climax and fulfillment of Israel’s story.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also a major theme of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. (No wonder these guys endorsed one another’s books.)

All four gospels connect Jesus to the Old Testament narrative in their own way. For example, Matthew presents Jesus as leading a new exodus. Luke connects Jesus to God’s covenant with Abraham.

Many Christians connect the Old Testament story to Jesus only insofar as the OT prophets predicted something, which Jesus then fulfilled, thus proving the accuracy of the Bible. That’s all well and good, says Wright, but the bigger point is that “the ancient story of God and God’s people hasn’t come to a stop.” The story that Christians regard as our starting point is also the continuation of Israel’s story. Israel’s story is our story.

Most Christians are more familiar with Wright’s second theme: the story of Jesus as the story of God incarnate. Belief in Jesus’ divinity is embedded in our creeds, and most Christians (Wright included…and myself, for that matter) would agree the story doesn’t make sense without it.

But Wright insists we’re emphasizing the wrong note. The gospels aren’t so much concerned with making the point that Jesus is God (rather, this seems to be assumed), but with how Jesus, being divine, reveals the next chapter of God’s story.

God has a story?

Yup, says N.T. Wright.

That story reached its low point in the story of Israel, when God became fed up and departed the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 10). From then on, God is missing in action. He is notable mainly for his absence. The temple liturgy becomes empty ritual because the priests are kneeling before an empty throne (so to speak).

But the gospels announce that God has come back in the person of Jesus. This is why Mark begins his story with God’s spirit — the same one that departed the temple centuries before — descending on Jesus like a dove. It’s why John opens with, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally tabernacled or, as Wright says, pitched his tent] among us.”

According to Wright, Jesus shows who he is “not by striding around, being divine all over the place” (BEST quote of the afternoon), but by acting out the part of the ancient covenant God — the God who has come back to be king.

Third, many Christians read the gospels as the story of how Jesus founded the church. To which Wright responds, “Jesus wasn’t founding a church, because the people of God had been going ever since Abraham.” (Second best quote of the day.)

Again, if we listen to the first theme (Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s story), we see that Jesus isn’t forming a new people so much as he’s creating a whole new identity for God’s people. And if we pay attention to Israel’s story, we realize this was the plan all along, because God’s promise to Abraham included all nations of the world.

The redemptive agenda is, as Wright puts it, “an agenda for a renewed humanity and for a renewing humanity through which God renews the world.”

Finally, there’s the fourth (and generally ignored) theme: the story of how Israel’s god defeated the powers of the world.

It’s no accident Luke mentions Caesar Augustus near the beginning of his story.

It’s no coincidence Matthew depicts a hapless Herod (Israel’s “king,” installed by Rome), desperately trying to kill the infant Jesus, whom he regards as a threat to his rule.

It wasn’t just to prove Jesus’ divinity that Mark has the centurion at the cross confess that Jesus was “the son of God” even though (as Wright points out) every coin in his pocket said otherwise. (Roman coins from that time bore the image of Caesar, along with the inscription “son of God.”)

And it’s no accident that John features a dramatic confrontation between Pilate, Caesar’s authorized representative, and Jesus, God’s authorized representative — debating their competing notions of truth, power, and kingdom.

God is becoming king, Wright says, but crucially:

The gospels demonstrate not only an alternative king, but an alternative mode of kingdom. We’re going to do ‘power’ in another way.

God reveals how he’s becoming king in the Sermon on the Mount:

God doesn’t send in the tanks; he sends in the meek, the brokenhearted. . . . God doesn’t bring about his kingdom with superior power of the same kind, but with another kind of power altogether.

In other words:

Kingdom and cross cannot be separated. The kingdom is launched in Jesus’ life and ministry, but established in his death and resurrection. The cross is the victory of the kingdom-bringer.

Which means that we are “called to be kingdom people AND cross people.” You can’t have one without the other.

The prophet Isaiah anticipated both a triumphant king returning in power AND a suffering servant, sacrificing himself for his people. Because we read about one in Isaiah 52 and the other in Isaiah 53, we tend to think of them as separate categories. But the chapter numbers are an artificial division, in this case obscuring the fact that Isaiah 52 and 53 are part of one poem. (Which, incidentally, is why we should read the Bible without chapter and verse numbers.) The triumphant king and the suffering servant are one and the same.

Theocracy, as seen through the gospels, isn’t about self-righteous Christians competing for power, working the system, and imposing their will on others. It’s about creating an altogether different system where the meek inherit the earth, the hungry are fed, and broken hearts are mended.

Wright’s next book, How God Became King, releases in March.