Book Club Discussion: Rapture theology a confusion of metaphors?

Sometimes when I get a bit carried away with a descriptive passage in my writing, I remind myself of a helpful little adage a favorite professor once taught me: “Try to avoid driving while under the influence of metaphors.”  As N.T. Wright suggests in his book “Surprised by Hope,” the Apostle Paul certainly liked his metaphors, and might have benefited from such advice. In fact, Wright asserts that it is a confusion of Paul’s many metaphors that has ultimately led to the popular idea of The Rapture. 

Now, I believed in The Rapture for years. As a kid, I prayed just about every day that it would happen sometime before my dreaded swimming lessons at the Y started for the summer. Today, I have great respect for theologians on both sides of the eschatological debate, and I’m honestly not that bothered by the “Left Behind” series, (except from a literary standpoint, of course). 

In recent years, however, I’ve found my enthusiasm for Rapture theology dwindling, and in Chapter 8 of “Surprised by Hope,” (our book club selection for the month of June), Wright does an excellent job of exploring the passages often used to support it. 

As we have seen, Wright advocates a view in which Christian teaching focuses not on life after death but “life after life after death,” which includes the resurrection of the body and the redemption of the created order. According to Wright, the  New Testament teaches that God will not destroy earth, but redeem it. The joining of the New Heaven with the New Earth will be marked by the presence of Jesus Christ Himself, who will come again. 

It is this idea of “coming again” that brings up the subject of the Rapture. Wright explains that the Greek word parousia, which is usually translated “coming,” literally means “presence” and was often used in Paul’s day to describe either 1) the presence of a god or divinity, or 2) the visit of an emperor or person of high rank to a colony or province. Paul could have chosen to use the word “parousia” to invoke either of these two concepts.

(For example, Paul may have wanted to say that, “just as Caesar might one day visit a colony like Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth…so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world.”) - p. 129

This sort of “parousia” should be kept in mind as we read the oft-quoted verses in 1 Thessalonians 4: 

“The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The Messiah’s dead will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we shall always be with the Lord.” (I Thessalonians 4:16-17) 

This passage has been used time and time again to support the idea of the Rapture. But according to Wright, Paul was not being literal, but was instead “finding richly metaphorical ways of alluding to three other stories that he is deliberately bringing together.” (132) These three stories include: 

1) The story of Moses coming down the mountain, in which the trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses descends to find out what the Israelites are doing. 

2) The story of Daniel 7, in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory. 

3) The typical story of an emperor visiting a colony or province, in which the citizens of the country would traditionally go to meet him at some distance from the city. According to Wright, “it would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; the would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air,’ the point is precisely not…that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord they will escort him royally into his domain…” (133) This sort of story effectively employs a common understanding of the word “parousia.” 

So is it a bit far-fetched to factor in all of these metaphors when interpreting this passage? N.T. Wright humorously addresses its feasibility: 

“Paul was good at richly mixed metaphors,” he writes. “In the next chapter, 1 Thessalonians 5, he says that the thief will come in the night, so the woman will go into labor, so you mustn’t get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armor. As the television programs say, don’t try that one at home.” 

Perhaps Christians should be a bit more careful of “interpreting while under the influence of metaphors.” What do you think?

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Why Obama takes the Bible more seriously than Dobson

What really bugged me about James Dobson's recent attack on Senator Barack Obama was not so much that he completely misrepresented Obama’s views on religion and public life (which he did), nor that he assumed Christians can only apply their values to one or two conservative political positions (which he often does), or even that he used inflammatory language and name-calling to make his point (for which he should know better.) What really got under my skin was that Dobson played the “you don’t take the Bible as seriously as I do” card on a guy who, in my opinion, takes it more seriously than most folks on the religious right. 

Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s senior vice president for government and public policy told CNN that Obama won’t get the evangelical vote because “evangelicals are people who take Bible interpretation very seriously, and the sort of speech [Obama] gave shows that he is worlds away in the views of evangelicals.” 

Well, not this evangelical. 

I read Obama’s speech in its entirety, and found that I wholeheartedly agreed with what he said about the Bible. Obama respects the Bible enough to acknowledge that: 

1) multiple interpretations of the Bible exist
2) there are many ways to apply the teachings of the Bible to public life
3) no one denomination or spokesperson has a monopoly on how to accurately interpret the Bible and apply it to public life 
4) because we live in a pluralistic society, we must learn to raise the level of public discourse so that we not only appeal to our specific religious tradition, but to a common sense of morality and justice 

In his speech, Obama asks, “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is okay and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our Bibles. Folks haven't been reading their Bibles.” 

The difference between Barack Obama and James Dobson is that Barack Obama talks about the Bible with both respect and realism. The Bible is not a manual for how to run a country. The Bible is a beautifully diverse collection of stories, poetry, history, and letters. It is full of both timeless truths and cultural assumptions. Applying its teaching to public life isn’t easy, and anyone who pretends that it is easy isn’t being honest with himself.

Dobson accused Obama of “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology.” What does Dobson mean by “the traditional understanding of the Bible”? He means “the James Dobson understanding of the Bible” in which the Levitical code no longer applies (except to homosexuals) and in which Jesus did not intend for us to literally apply “love your enemies” to foreign policy.

Dobson has every right to his interpretation, but I think he is wrong to claim that only those who interpret the Bible in this way take it seriously. People who take the Bible seriously use it to start conversations, not end them. People who take the Bible seriously use it to edify, not tear down. People who take the Bible seriously know that no one (neither Obama nor Dobson nor any republican or democrat) can rightfully claim it as his own. 

I love the Bible. My hope is that the next president of the United States will treat it with the respect it deserves.

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Taking God's Name in Vain

I do it every time I tell a friend I will pray for her, and then forget. I do it when I absently mouth the lyrics to a hymn or use the Bible as a weapon in order to win an argument. I do it when I gossip, speaking ill of another human being created in His image. I do it when I drop spiritual buzzwords into my conversations in order to fit in. 

I suppose we’ve all mastered the art of taking God’s name in vain. Christians in particular have a way of letting careless language about God creep into our idiomatic subculture to the point that we talk about Him (and thus insinuate things about His character) without even realizing it. 

Over the past few years, I’ve really struggled to discipline my tongue, particularly when it comes to talking about God. After going through a pretty serious period of doubt about my faith, I found myself with a heightened sensitivity to the use of God’s name in everyday speech, especially concerning 1) material blessings, 2) theological positions, and 3) life decisions. 

Material Blessings  

You know that expression, “It was totally a God thing”? For some reason, I can’t bring myself to say it. 

Usually used in the context of a positive turn of events or the receiving of some material blessing, the “God thing” phrase gets under my skin because it implies that God is behind every stroke of good luck in our lives. When I consider that Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, I find myself wondering if material blessings are really spiritual advantages after all.  If God causes the rain to fall on both the good and the evil, could pay raises and job opportunities and new cars and book deals be nothing more than pay raises and job opportunities and new cars and book deals? 

I suppose my aversion to “God things” is a response to what I see as a general acceptance of the wealth, health, and prosperity gospel even among those who say they reject it. Or perhaps it is the result of years of doubt and guilt concerning God’s goodness in allowing me to enjoy so many comforts in my life while thousands of children die every day for lack of food and healthy water.  I guess I just don’t want to spiritualize things (like money or status) that aren’t inherently spiritual. 

One thing I know for sure is that I’ve got to be less judgmental of those who choose to use such language to honestly express their gratitude to God. You don’t make a lot of friends dampening a conversation by saying, “Yeah, well what about the kid who just died of AIDS in Africa?” Anyone who thinks I don’t believe that God cares about the “little things” need only observe my own hypocritical habit of praying for a book deal! 

Theological Positions 

As I’ve mentioned before, I think evangelical Christians in particular must be a bit more careful of insisting that our theology is somehow God’s theology. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told, “your disagreement is with God, so take it up with Him,” I’d be a rich woman, even factoring in inflation. 

However, most of the time I find that my disagreement is not so much with God, but with Plato or Augustine or Calvin or Dobson, or some theological system or cultural paradigm that’s been attributed to Him. Of course, I’m as guilty as anyone else of assuming I know God’s thoughts about things, but I’ve recently found myself a bit more hesitant to call my biblical interpretations absolute truth. 

I much prefer Peter Rollins’ approach to religious tradition as “a loving response to God rather than a way of defining God.” When we recognize, as Rollins writes, that “negation is embedded within, and permeates, all religious affirmation…that a desert of ignorance exists in the midst of every oasis of understanding,” we can more humbly dialog with those with whom we disagree and avoid using God’s name carelessly by inserting it into our presuppositions. 

Life Decisions 

As much as I hate to admit it, I once broke up with a boy because I “felt God was leading me in another direction.” The truth: I was a freshman in high school and I wanted to keep my options open, including the option to date the cute guy in my history class. 

I’ve matured a bit since then, but the collective habit of invoking God’s name to support decision-making remains an issue for the Church. I’ve heard some of the most outlandish and irresponsible plans justified by folks who insist they are following God’s will. Just the other day a couple announced their plans to relocate, adding “we can’t very well argue with God.”  Such an attitude renders the guidance and advice of other people moot. Furthermore, it places the burden of responsibility on God rather than the people making the decision. It’s a clever way of justifying what we want to do and spiritualizing our desires. 

The most exhaustive critique of this phenomenon can be found in Gary Friesen’s groundbreaking  book Decision Making and the Will of God. In it, Friesen deconstructs the notion that God has a specific ideal blueprint for every person’s life in favor of what he calls the “way of wisdom” as described in the Bible. I highly recommend it. 

***

In Jewish thought, a name represents the reputation of the thing being named, which is why Jews are so careful with how they use the many names of God. An act that causes God or Judaism to come into disrespect is often referred to as "chillul Ha-Shem," profanation of The Name.  An act of righteousness that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism is referred to as "kiddush Ha-Shem," sanctification of The Name. If only Christians were as careful and reverential in our treatment of God’s name! If only we recognized how profoundly our use of God’s name affects His reputation.

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Book Club Discussion: Building God's Kingdom

It’s Monday, so today we continue our discussion on NT Wright’s fascinating book “Surprised by Hope,” in which the Bishop of Durham argues that Christian eschatology should focus less on life after death and more on “life after life after death” - the bodily resurrection of the dead and the reign of Jesus in the redeemed creation. Today I’d like to focus on Wright’s ideas concerning the role of the Church in preparing for this new world.

Competing Theories

Wright does a good job of examining and dismantling several competing theories that have become prevalent in Western Christian thought: 

One is the dichotomy between evolutionary optimism (the idea that the world is getting better as people morally evolve) and Platonic escapism (the idea that the world is an entirely evil place from which our souls must escape and which God will completely destroy). Second, is the dichotomy between social gospel (the idea that if we work hard enough we can usher in the Kingdom of God on our own) and giving up (the idea that any attempts at redeeming this world are futile). 

I don’t know about you, but most of my evangelical experience has included the teaching that God will ultimately destroy the world and that anyone who thinks the purpose of the Church is to try and fix it is naïve. I’ve seen this sort of theology applied to global warming, (“God is going to destroy the world anyway”), humanitarian aid, (“It’s more important to give people the gospel than to give them food”) and to social justice, (“Just let God straighten it out in eternity”). 

While I’ve become disillusioned with this approach, I’ve also found the evolutionary optimism/ social gospel route to be discouraging because, as Wright suggests, “it will never solve evil retrospectively…(and it) underestimates the nature and power of evil itself…” 

So when Jesus says that we should pray for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” what does He mean? And is Paul being a bit too hopeful when he  urges believers to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”? 

Central to Wright’s response is 1) his understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven, and 2) his insistence that with the resurrected Christ is Lord. 

The Kingdom of Heaven

Wright looks at the Kingdom of Heaven this way: “God’s kingdom in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’…Heaven, in the Bible is not a future destiny but the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life-God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” (18-19) 

The story of Jesus, he writes, is “the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as it is in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.” 

Jesus is Lord 

Wright is also convinced that Jesus is Lord of this new Kingdom. 

“…The gospel, in the New Testament, is the good news that God (the world’s creator) is at last becoming king and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world’s true lord.” (227)

Wright then addresses the question I immediately found myself asking: 

“But how can the church announce that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil, corruption, and death itself have been defeated, and that God’s new world has begun? Doesn’t this seem laughable? Well, it would be if it wasn’t happening. But if a church is…actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and if it’s cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation…and if, in addition, its own internal life gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community-then suddenly the announcement makes a lot of sense.” (227) 

Building for the Kingdom by Following Jesus as Lord 

This brings us to Wright’s response to the objection that working for social justice is an attempt to build the kingdom by our own efforts: 

“Let’s be quite clear on two points. First, God builds God’s kingdom. But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image…He has enlisted us to act as his stewards in the project of creation…So the objection about us trying to build God’s kingdom by our own efforts, though it seems humble and pious, can actually be a way of hiding from responsibility, of keeping one’s head well down when the boss is looking for volunteers…” (207). 

Wright believes that while we are presently involved in building the kingdom, it will not come to complete fruition until the Second Coming of Christ.

I suppose my question is this: Do you think that the Church is meant to simply be a picture of this future kingdom or do you think that it is meant to help inaugurate this future kingdom? Do we get into tricky territory when we start talking about the lordship of Christ, with His followers being, (as Wright puts it), “agents of that authority”? Hasn’t that attitude led to some big mistakes in history-like the Crusades, for example?  Or does this cease to be a problem when we properly understand the fact that participating in this kingdom means loving others as we love ourselves, with the expectation that God will be the one to ultimately join the kingdom of heaven with the earth?

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(The First Ever) Finish-The-Sentence Friday

Let's try something new. Finish the following sentence: "If I could travel through time and give my sixteen-year-old self some advice, it would be…"

I'll go first: "...You don't have to feign cluelessness to get people to like you."

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