28 April 2010

The Superlative Animal

I've recently re-read J.D. Salinger's Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, and have remembered my love for it. It's truly one of my favorite novellas (along with the other related stories revolving around the Glass family—Seymour: An Introduction; Franny and Zooey; and Nine Stories. Catcher in the Rye doesn't do it for me, however; Holden Caulfield is an annoying pric).

The title of this story comes from Sappho's fragment 88, which the narrator's sister, Boo Boo, scrawls on the bathroom mirror with a sliver of soap (in light of her other brother's forthcoming marriage):  

Raise high the roof beams, Carpenters!
Like Ares comes the bridegroom!
Taller than all tall men!

Since there already exists a good many synopses of
Raise High (see this post, for example), all I'd like to do here is share a few quotes from it that have stuck with me over the years. I realize that taken out of context, and without a love (or hatred) for the character's speaking them, these words might simply fall flat. Still, I think there's some appreciation to be had, at least with respect to their sound and sense:

Beyond the fact that it was jam-packed and stifling hot, I can remember only two things: there was an organ playing almost directly behind me, and that the woman in the seat directly at my right turned to me and enthusiastically stage-whispered, "I'm Helen Sisburn!"
The June sun was so hot and so glaring, of such multi-flashbulb-like mediacy, that the image of the bride, as she made her almost invalided way down the stone steps, tended to blur where blurring mattered most.
The Matron of Honor stared at me, openly, for a moment—and not really rudely, for a change, unless child's stares are rude.
If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to.
His face was in the ferocious repose that had fooled me during most of the car ride, but as he came closer to us in the hall, the mask reversed itself; he pantomimed to us both the very highest salutations and greetings, and I found myself grinning and nodding immoderately in return. His sparse white hair looked freshly combed—almost freshly washed, as though he might have discovered a tiny barbershop cached away at the other end of the apartment. When he'd passed us, I felt a compulsion to look back over my shoulder, and when I did, he waved to me, vigorously—a great, bon-voyage, come-back-soon wave. It picked me up no end. "What is he? Crazy?" the matron of Honor said. I said I hoped so, and opened the door of the bedroom.
I felt awe and happiness. How I love and need her undiscriminating heart.
I said (sententiously?) that God undoubtedly loves kittens, but not, in all probability, with Technicolor bootees on their paws. He leaves that creative touch to script writers. …She sat stirring her drink and feeling unclose to me. She worries over the way her love for me comes and goes, appears and disappears. She doubts its reality simply because it isn't as steadily pleasurable as a kitten. God knows it is sad. The human voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth.
But on the whole I don't make her really happy. Oh, God, help me. My one terrible consolation is that my beloved has an undying, basically undeviating love for the institution of marriage itself. She has a primal urge to play house permamently. Her marital goals are so absurd and touching. She wants to get a very dark sun tan and go up to the desk clerk in some very posh hotel and ask if her Husband has picked up the mail yet. She wants to shop for curtains. She wants to shop for maternity clothes.  …She wants children—good-looking children, with her features, not mine. I have a feeling, too, that she wants her own Christmas-tree ornaments to unbox annually, not her mother's.
He also had the impression that I'd said [the Gettysburg Address] was a dishonest speech. I told him I'd said that 51,112 men were casualties at Gettysburg, and that if someone had to speak at the anniversary of the event, he should simply have come forward and shaken his fist at his audience and then walked off—that is, if the speaker was an absolutely honest man.
Oh God, if I'm anything by a clinical name, I'm kind of a paranoic in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.
Her voice sounded strangely levelled off, stripped of even the ghost of italics.
I could go on and on, of course, but I hope you enjoyed these (often enigmatic) selections. There's an honesty to Salinger, wrought on the lips of the narrator, Buddy Glass, that ought not go overlooked for long. Tolle lege.

27 April 2010

Born-Again Baldwin

Forget the widow and orphan, Stephen Baldwin needs your help.

God forbid Stephen Baldwin gets a job and lives a quiet, lower middle-class life.

19 April 2010

Strawmen: A Fundamentalist’s Trojan Horse

My head is about to burst into flames.

I don’t publicly disagree with friends lightly, but here goes: the resignation of Bruce Waltke from Reformed Theological Seminary is a blemish on an otherwise decent history, at least in my experience there (as a full-time student from 2000 to 2002 at the Orlando campus). Equally distasteful are the majority of reactionary blog posts—for and against (view this for a good illustration that depicts why). One more thing, in the interest of transparency, I'm fairly ignorant about modern scientific theories, and still I remain unconvinced of the entire neo-Darwinian synthesis, yet I am even less convinced of young-earth creationism—for both biblical and scientific reasons.

Interestingly, Modern Reformation's upcoming May/June edition has an Ad Extra article titled "PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth" (pp. 6–9). "In this article," the eight Reformed geologists write, "we wish to provide our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ with a few general observations, some clarificaton of a common misconception about our science, and two specific examples that speak convincingly that God's earthly creation has been around for a very long time" (about 4.6 billion years, p. 6). Anyway, back to the point.

In Old Testament Theology, Waltke wrote that “the best harmonious synthesis of the special revelation of the Bible, of the general revelation of human nature that distinguishes between right and wrong and consciously or unconsciously craves God, and of science is the theory of theistic evolution” (p. 202). It was published in 2007, and he had been working on this book for over a decade. I sat under him in 2002, and the statement from OT Theology came as no surprise; he vocalized openness to theistic evolution at various points (as did at least one other of my old professors). Why, then, the sudden dismissal? Simply because the video gained so much attention? Maybe. Any further speculation wouldn’t be wise on my part.

Instead, let’s look at a few points raised in the various posts floating around out there, points that are causing my eyes to bleed:
  • Bruce Waltke has insisted that evangelicals must accept evolution or be considered a "cult." 
This strawman, through which the reactionary fundamentalist sneaks in, is at best a result of inability to listen carefully, or at worst just plain deceitful. Unfortunately, BioLogos titled the original video snippet that has since been pulled, “Why the Church Must Accept Evolution.” Waltke nowhere stated such a thing. In fact, he wrote in response to the ruckus that he “would have entitled it ‘why the church should accept creation by the process of evolution,’ not ‘why the church must accept evolution.’” He goes on: “Also I would have emphasized in writing that the introductory ‘If’ is a big ‘if' . . . .”

This should stop every keyboard from typing the lie once and for all. But just in case Waltke’s point was missed: If (a big IF) our observation of the empirical data leads, as conclusively as it can in this fallen world, to the affirmation of something akin to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, then to deny that conclusion would be tantamount to sticking one’s head in the sand, much like we see in the practices of cults (in its gnostic mistrust of the phenomenological). In other words, given that all truth is God’s truth, and given that a truth can be known in this world through the observation of empirical data (so-called “general revelation"), then to deny that truth once it has been verified (which admittedly isn’t an infallible verification), is an implicit denial of nature as a valid revelatory sphere (i.e., it is capable, at least in theory, of revealing real history). In short, it runs the risk of calling God a liar.
  • Ironically, Bruce Waltke, an eminent Old Testament scholar, doesn’t base his arguments on the Old Testament at all. 
Contrary to this oft-repeated criticism, Waltke’s entire statement on the BioLogos video and in his chapters on Genesis 1–3 in An Old Testament Theology are informed by the Scriptures; indeed, one can take his comments to be the tip of a biblical iceberg. He couldn’t have said what he said about science and archaeology if he hadn’t first come to a few exegetical conclusions. One can no doubt refuse to give him the benefit of the doubt, of assuming the worst with respect to his motivations, that his “first priority is to look intellectually cool and hip before the skeptical world” (as one blogger put it with respect to BioLogos, and, by extension, Waltke), but of course the burden of proof rests with the accuser in this matter. You’ll find none, however, for it’s a Trojan horse designed to get the fundamentalist behind the gate.

For those disinclined to give fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt, let’s take a gander at what that might look like: Giving Waltke the benefit of the doubt means assuming that he has already done the hard interpretive work, Hebraist that he is, and has found that a proper exegesis of the creation narrative does not conflict with or contradict certain aspects of what physicists, geologists, paleontologists, biologists, etc., are saying today (nor is his exegesis concordist in nature; rather, it’s complementary, which recognizes consequently that “the Bible does not make scientific claims and therefore we should not be biblically dogmatic when it comes to this topic” as another blogger admitted).

Often what follows this truth regarding the Bible and scientific claims are the questions: But does not Scripture make historical claims? And is not the creation narrative intended to be a record of history? Indeed. It's a good question. But just asking it doesn't damn Waltke. The better question is what does the creation account presume to be a historical record of—material creation or functional creation? The literal creation of the cosmos, or the arranging of an already created cosmos to serve the purposes of the creator God and his human creatures (as John Walton suggests)? Or, maybe as John Sailhamer argues, the creation account records the preparation of the Promised Land, the origin of God’s people, Israel?

Regardless, this one point must be pounded in, apparently: granting the basics of the neo-Darwinian synthesis does not necessarily preclude the historicity of Adam and Eve. N.T. Wright, in his commentary on Romans 5, helpfully summarizes this point: 
Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose male, Adam, had been give a commandment and had broke it. Paul was, we may be sure, aware of what we would call mythical or metaphorical dimensions to the story, but he would not have regarded these as throwing doubt on the existence, and primal sin, of the first historical pair. …Each time another very early skull is dug up the newspapers exclaim over the discovery of the first human beings; we have consigned Adam and Eve entirely to the world of mythology, but we are still looking for their replacements. (NIB p. 526)
Waltke, as he has said implicitly, if not explicitly (see OT Theology, pp. 184, 203, 223, 259, 277-79, and his commentary on Genesis, pp. 66–67, 70, 85), along with the whole of Christian history is on the other side of the fence than those who would deny this biblical-historical point: there was a single, representative first pair.
  • Waltke doesn’t present his argument for evolution as a result of biblical reflection.
This strawman is intended, of course, to cast suspicion on his conservative Christian credentials. But it betrays a rather shallow thought pattern: can any modern scientific theory be based on one’s reflection of the Scriptures? To answer in the affirmative is to cast doubt on the very hermeneutic one presupposes can do this.

The fact is, Genesis 1 exhibits an ancient cosmology. It does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions. How, then, could Waltke present his argument for evolution based on a reflection of Scripture? He knows better than that—better than the sloppy thinking that produces many of the reactionary blog posts being written over the past two weeks. To be sure, Waltke could say this or that portion of Scripture doesn’t contradict this or that point of evolution, but he can’t say this or that portion of Scripture supports an evolutionary view of the cosmos (a la Glenn Morton, or, in the opposite direction, Henry Morris).

Waltke knows that such an approach to the biblical text ends up changing the very meaning of the text itself, since it attempts to make the text say something it never intended for it to say. In short, he knows how to read the Bible according to its various genres, something anti-intellectualists have notoriously derided.

What follows the last criticism is often a question as to whether Waltke really affirms the divine authority of Scripture (because he’s supposedly denying the historical claims of it). But this point rests entirely on a presupposed way of reading the text (in the young-earth creationist direction), and Waltke doesn’t share that hermeneutic. In other words, it won’t do to accuse someone of undermining the authority of Scripture if they don’t at all affirm your particular reading of it; that’s a classic fundamentalist and biblicist tactic, and ought to be avoided by thinking people everywhere.

Another classic tactic is the imputation of ill motives to the opposition:
  • Waltke apparently presupposes the predominance of science over Scripture. 
This point has already been dealt with, in that Waltke’s approach to the issue of science and Scripture is that they are complementary, not concordist (the view that suggests Scripture does make scientific claims. But the question always is, which science, and when? That of the nineteenth century? Or maybe the twentieth?). So, in fact, Waltke does not assume the hegemony of science over Scripture. That is, ironically, exactly what creation-science types are guilty of, in their pursuit to provide an alternative science and thus import into the ancient text modern scientific notions.

Do reactionaries think they can avoid heavenly scorn merely by avoiding the hard questions generated by our increase in knowledge about the cosmos (a kind of modern gnosticism), while still holding to even more obnoxious “doctrines” like divisiveness for the sake of the church's “purity”?  Waltke was right, the hermeneutics behind anti-intellectual fundamentalism are a Trojan horse that, once inside our gates, must cause the entire fortress of Christian belief to fall under the cultic sword.

And no equivocating on the word
cult here. There’s good cult, and there’s bad (just like there are good and bad kinds of fundamentalism). The good kind of cult, to quote John Howard Yoder, knows that "the believer's cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social nonconformity." It inclines us "to take the world's wisdom with a pinch of salt and not be too worried if they find [us] 'unloving' or [dismissive of the] church when she refuses to conform to their view of reality simply because they tell [us] it is true" (well said, Carl). However, the kind that exists under anti-intellectual and demagogic fundamentalists can only lead to “spiritual death.” I'm not suggesting that every opponent of Waltke's embodies this (even if I've alluded to your blog post here). But I am suggesting that the confessional Reformed camp is on the verge of being hijacked, and one major way this is happening is through the Trojan horse of fundamentalism.

15 April 2010

Freedom and Its Obligations

If ever there were a free man, Adam was he. And all he and his wife had to do was exercise that freedom to the glory of God. But somewhere along the line, disobedience seemed like a viable option. Scripture isn’t exactly clear how and when sin crept into the minds of that first couple. All we see is Eve suddenly giving a greater value to the tree, its fruit, and wisdom—over against God’s word. This was not a simple grasp at more information, as if mere “knowledge” was lacking in them both. Rather, this was a power-grab at what the potential of greater knowledge might bring—autonomy, or freedom from the Creator’s way. All too ironically, Eve decides this is “good” (Gen. 3:6); now she is the one who, like the Creator in Genesis 1, judges what is good. The only difference (and it’s a big one) is that what God calls good is that which enhances the life of his creation. Adam and Eve, on the other hand, think that what is good is that which serves their new purpose—to make themselves somehow greater than they already are. After all, it was their “right”; and what kind of God would deny them their rights? It is no wonder that millennia later the prophet Malachi said that God grows weary of those scoundrels who say, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” (2:17).

It is just like us to do the same thing when we enter this world. For when we enter this world, we carry with us the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth of Adam. Our five senses are captivated with success (usually defined in monetary terms), with gratifying every want, with making ourselves somehow greater than the image bearers we were created to be. It is as if we were the one horse in the race facing backwards at the starting line-up. Upon the crack of the gun—we’re off!—but in the opposite direction.

We love ourselves so very much; after all, we do good all the time (never mind that we are the ones who have decided what is “good”). Narcissism is systemic in these United States, as seen in the way we’ve morphed our economy into a giant ball of self-service—from sex, to envy, to anger, to power—if we want it, we can get it. Advertisers know this, and thus are all-too willing to carefully combine any product with images of personal fulfillment. One might even call the serpent’s conversation with Eve in Genesis 3 the first prime-time commercial.

This thinking, that we somehow deserve better and that we’ve got the right to go get it, goes all the way back to the garden. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good . . . she took of its fruit and ate” (3:6). Now, they were not saying it was their "legal" right to have open eyes or to know, like God, good and evil (see 3:5); rather, they were using their God-given reason to claim an abstract right, which was, in effect, an attempt to debunk his authority and shrug-off their obligation to him.

What the serpent did was infect the minds of Adam and Eve with the notion that they had the right to grasp at the fruit. In fact, the snake did the same thing the tempter attempted to do to Jesus in the wilderness (see Matt. 4:1–11).

To Adam and Eve, the serpent offered something other than the word of God; Jesus would have none of it—except God’s word (vv. 3–4). The serpent dared them to test the Lord God, and they did, knowing full well that he promised death if they ate of the tree. Jesus, on the other hand, would not throw himself wantonly toward death, thereby testing God’s promises (v. 7). The serpent lifted Adam and Eve up to the highest heights when it showed them their supposed “rights.” From that view, they saw a kingdom without constraints, and they saw themselves as autonomous royalty, worthy of worship. To the complete contrary, Jesus rebuked the tempter when he was shown all the kingdoms of the world (and if anyone had the legal right or deed to them, it was he). But he knew what he was there to do: “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!” (v. 10). Adam and Eve apparently didn’t want this obligation, since it got in the way of their own personal fulfillment.

Seventeenth-century poet and pamphleteer, John Milton, writer of Paradise Lost, knew what it would take to undo what Adam and Eve had done. Being discontented with the unfinished story of a paradise lost, Milton went on to write the much shorter Paradise Regained. Yet he covered only the temptation of Jesus by Satan, because, from a biblical perspective, it was through Jesus’ overcoming the tempter that the stage was set for “the Son of the Most High” to begin His “glorious work” (Book 4, ll. 633–34). Milton writes that Jesus “hast avenged supplanted Adam, and by vanquishing temptation, has regained lost Paradise” (ll. 607–9). The greater Adam has come and done what only the Messiah could do, namely, found a “fairer Paradise . . . for Adam and his chosen sons” (ll. 613–14). He has given what God always wanted—love, adoration, and obedience. Of course, God wants this from us too. And we are truly able—if and only if we are in the Son, that is, enabled by grace alone through the work of the Holy Spirit to thwart the tempter just as he did. In this way, we experience a freedom unlike Adam’s; and in the end, we are more free, because we have been chained to God through Christ.

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 30.2 (February 2006): 23–24

07 April 2010

Yet 40 Days and You Will Read This, part 3

See the first and second parts of this series on reading canonical prophetic literature.

In sum, we left off with the argument that prognostications found in Scripture have tacit conditions attached to them. This applies to every form of prediction found in the canon: 1) those explicitly qualified by conditions; 2) those explicitly qualified by assurances; and 3) those with no explicit qualifications (see part 2 for more on these classes of prophecies).

But what about Deuteronomy 18:22? We're still left with: "…when a prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that Yahweh has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him."

Could it be that black-and-white? Is this a straightforward test? Failed predictions mark false prophets? What about those intervening historical contingencies?

As economical as this interpretation may be, it does not account for the information gleaned in part 2 of this series. Is it therefore unique to Deuteronomic theology and contradicted by later biblical traditions? To be sure, many modern exegetes take the test as a general rule to which there are few exceptions. Alternatively, though, I would suggest that the primary audience (of Moses' day) realized that unqualified predictions had implied conditions. If this dynamic was indeed well-known, then it need not be repeated explicitly when the criterion of Deuteronomy 18:22 was offered ("if the word does not come to pass"). Thus, this test instructed the Israelites to expect a prediction from a true prophet to come about, unless significant intervening contingencies interrupted. Maybe that is why so many passages highlight historical contingencies that have interrupted many fulfillments? Why were the various biblical authors so specific in detailing the human responses that curbed the outcome of the predictions? Could it be that by pointing to significant historical contingencies, the Israelites would have no trouble accepting interruped predictions as originating with Yahweh?

It should be seen as indisputable that historical contingencies affected the outcomes of unqualified predictions, but did tacit conditions apply only to this last category or did conditions attach to all prophecies? The answer, which I've already mentioned in the first part, is found in Jeremiah 18:1–10. Here we see that the Jerusalmites opposed the prophet (see vv. 11–12) because they believed divine protection for the holy city was entirely unconditional (e.g., Jer. 7:4). But what Jeremiah 18:1–10 amounts to is a rebuttal of this false security. It stated that all unqualified predictions, even those concerning Jerusalem, operated with implied conditions.

How do I dare suggest that this text is paradigmatic? "At some time" (v. 7); and "at some other time" (v. 9), suggest to me that Yahweh's words apply to every situation. Secondly, the all-inclusive phrase "any nation or kingdom" (v. 7) also points us in this direction. Thirdly, the oracles described in this pericope are categorically judgment and salvation oracles. At the very least, an attempt to classify all of the prophetic oracles in Scripture reveals that they all gravitate in one or both of these directions. The text, then, portrays a God who exercised great latitude because his responses were situation specific, appropriate for the particularities of each event. But there is also a basic pattern at work: the realization of all unqualified predictions were subject to modification as Yahweh reacted to his people's responses. In sum, historical contingencies had a bearing on all three major types of predictions discussed in this series. In every case, significant responses preceding fulfillments had the potential of effecting to some degree how Yahweh would direct the future.

I could go on, of course, but I think if the patient reader has read this far, he or she gets the point. A subsequent post could deal with this principle of reading biblical prophecy as it relates to various New Testament predictions—like those found in the Olivet Discourse, the Apocalypse, etc. I do believe they fall into the categories I have listed above. Such a discussion could focus on, for example, how the Messiah has not re-appeared (in body) yet, and how that relates to the immiment predictions found in the NT.

01 April 2010

Destiny of the Evangelical Species

Bruce Waltke has been taken to task for his recent comments (the video has since been taken down) about how the (evangelical) church will be destined for "cult" status if, in the course of time, all the data points decisively to something akin to the neo-Darwinian synthesis and the church still denies that reality. In short, its destiny is spiritual death, he argues, if it chooses to simply stick its head in the sand.
First, this is like pub-talk for me; I don't think this discussion is the article upon which the church stands and falls. Yet, arguably, some tough (if not creative) theological work needs to be done in the face of the increasingly substantive evolutionary explanation of the data. Second, while my scientific opinions are tentative (not being a scientist, I have no inclination to defend evolution or any other old-earth schema), my concern is that creation "science" is detrimental to the church's health (for the heavens declare the glory of God — "but do they declare the dishonesty of God?").

In J.V. Fesko's
Last Things First (download the introduction here), he writes, "Many within the Reformed community accept the conclusions of creation science without investigating its presuppositions [founded by a 7th-day Adventist and perpetuated by dispensationalists]" (p. 18). Fesko goes on to discuss "the hallmark hermeneutical principle of dispensationalism" — "strict literalism" (p. 19). What is perplexing to Fesko is "that many within the Reformed community will reject dispensational eschatology but embrace its interpretation of creation. …If one applies a consistently Reformed hermeneutic to the interpretation of Scripture, he must reject [dispensationalist and creation scientist] conclusions. Reformed theology neither embraces the Bible as a textbook of science nor employs an overly literalistic hermeneutic" (pp. 19, 21).

To my mind, this is the fundamental starting point when discussing these issues. In other words, before one asks me, "But what about
Gen 1:11, 24 — doesn't the text indicate that each kind of plant or animal will produce its own kind?" I think it's wise to first deal with the foundational hermeneutical principles that Fesko writes about in his introduction. To put it differently, Scripture doesn't speak about material creation because it cannot, but because it does not.

What's more, in my opinion, there's deep misunderstanding about what Gen 1 actually says and the relationship between science and faith.

Dealing with the last point first, science, by its very nature (as is currently understood), must bracket the metaphysical (with apologies to all my presuppositional friends). It cannot explore divine causation, for it concerns itself only with empirical data. Thus it deals with the demonstrable and falsifiable, and not with divine activity (science, therefore, cannot prove or disprove the existence of God).

This is not to suggest that Christians do not stand firmly upon the revelation of divine activity and purpose woven into the very fabric of creation, because every truth unveiled (by scientists, in this instance) is another step in understanding how God has worked or continues to work through the material world and its naturalistic processes.

Regarding what Gen 1 purports to teach, I think a lot of the heat would give way to light, at least in the Reformed world, if folks would be willing to give a shot to what Walton suggests in
The Lost World with a bit of Sailhamer thrown in.

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