Monday, October 23, 2006

Jane Eyre

My wife and I recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. It's been a great 10 years, even when things haven't been euphoric. Today, my wife quoted me a passage from Jane Eyre that is stunning in its beauty. The following is the character Jane Eyre talking about her husband, Mr. Rochester:

I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest - blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward's society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character - perfect concord is the result. (p. 454)

It is hard to believe that an expression this moving and eloquent can ever actually be lived by real people. Humans are humans after all, full of faults, foibles, and frustrations. Yet, I am indeed supremely blessed by the gift of my wife, and while our concord is not always 'perfect', God's perfect superintending of our lives makes it difficult to flatly say that our concord is altogther imperfect either. Perfection is a tricky thing, and I have long struggled with a biblical definition of it. As I wrote in one of my published papers, perfection does not entail the erasure of scars, but the glorification of them. My wife and I both brought scars into our marriage, and like virtually everyone, we have occasionally scarred each other. But the redeeming of those scars through love, forgiveness, gratitude, and sacrifice makes our concord perfect. We display our scars to each other without shame, just as Christ did in John 20, and we love each other scars and all. Language is indeed inadequate to capture this kind of redemption.

Religious Instruction at Harvard - A Reasoned Choice

A committee at Harvard has recommended that the university require incoming students to take a course in religion and reason. The rationale is that religion, in all of its forms, remains perhaps the biggest mover and shaker not only in individual lives, but global policies and relations. Therefore, so the argument goes, given the gravity of religion and its importance in many aspects of global life, it only makes sense for Harvard to mandate instruction in this area for those whom the university claims it is equipping to thoughtfully engage the world for the better. Like many, I applaud this recommendation and believe it is long overdue.

I applaud this recommendation even though I am not naive. The content of this instruction will likely have nothing to do with religious apologizing, and will almost certainly avoid all hints of favoritism between religions. The instruction will not be anyone's idea of Christian education. Christianity will, at best, be considered on equal footing as other religions. So why do I applaud the recommendation? Well, it really represents a startling admission, and rebuke. Harvard, like many universities, has long celebrated its deliberate and strong-willed secularism. For many in the Academy who are holdovers from the 60s, it wasn't that religious instruction was useless per se - it was that religion itself was useless. For them, religion was not a legitimate academic discipline because religion was little more than mythology - and often dangerous mythology at that. So while Harvard and other universities continued to maintain religion departments for those who had not yet seen the light of reasoned secularism, the notion that religious instruction should be mainstreamed by being included in a broad liberal arts curriculum was downright insulting because it took hours away from legitimate academic topics. This recommendation is a rebuke of this mentality, because it suggests that religion is not only a legitimate academic topic, but it is so relevant to the world that Harvard graduates will enter that it is simply imperative to get their feet wet in these areas if they are to be well-rounded graduates. Moreover, by recommending that religious instruction be related to 'reason', the committee is acknowledging that the two are not mutually exclusive, as so many ardent secularists believe. Again, the goal of this instruction is not to apologetically demonstrate that religion is reasonable. The goal is to reason together about religion, its impact, its importance, and yes, its legitimacy. The goal is clearly to promote tolerance and reduce religious radicalism in all (or at least most) of its forms. But the fact that a Harvard committee has gone even this far is a significant censure of previous academic thinking regarding the legitimacy of religion and its role in global affairs. Bravo to this committee for finally beginning to see the obvious. Maybe others will too.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Iraq and the American Public

I don't like sports analogies too much. They are banally overused, trite, and often oversimplistic. But when it comes to Iraq and the American public, I grudgingly think a boxing metaphor is a fairly good way to look at the situation.

The US conflict with Iraqi insurgents is in some ways pretty similar to a heavyweight prize fight that, on paper, seems to be a mismatch. As the lone superpower, the US has the glitz, the big knockout punch, and the best training money can buy. The US has a track record for getting into the ring with mismatched opponents and scoring early knockouts in the kind of flashy style that endears them to those who like a scintillating show. Given this, what kind of strategy do you think a wily opponent would employ to try to offset these advantages?

As it turns out, the US title-machine has a rather glaring weakness. This weakness was glaringly exposed in one previous fight, and was hinted at in other fights as well. Put simply, the US doesn't do well when it is forced to fight into the later rounds. Much of the US's reputation is built on quick, overwhelming knockouts that happen early on in the bout. But what happens when the opponent survives the onslaught of the early rounds and forces the US to answer the bell past round 3? We are discovering the answer in Iraq.

The insurgents in Iraq might be fanatics who have no qualms in killing fellow Arabs who are completely innocent and just want to live in peace. But this doesn't automatically make the insurgents stupid. The insurgents know a bit of history, and they also know a thing or two about the American public. America is an instant gratification culture. Perseverance is no longer a virtuous quality, but is instead a quality employed by those who lack the courage to liberate themselves from bad circumstances. Everywhere in our culture today, perseverance has become the signature characteristic of the weak, not the strong. This, of course, is Biblically backwards, but hey, welcome to America.

The insurgents in Iraq know this. Their strategy for victory is not to outgun the US, outtrain the US, or outfinance the US. Their strategy is to outlast the US. They are banking on the assumption that the US cannot and will not go the full 15 rounds. They believe that if they can force the US to answer the bell in the later rounds, the US will get tired, there will be bickering in the US's corner, and the US will begin to doubt the outcome of the fight and get nervous and defensive rather than stay on the attack. The insurgency wants to make this a battle of wills, because a battle of wills, by definition, isn't over in 2 rounds. They are counting on the US being unwilling to absorb the kind of punishment and pay the kind of price that has to be paid to win a grind-it-out fight.

From where I sit, the insurgency has employed the exactly correct strategy for defeating the US in Iraq (and beyond?). In America, cultural attitudes are simple - if victory is not quick, complete, and mostly painless, then there is only failure. The assumption of the insurgency is that the American public simply lacks the will to see this thing through. The US wants a quick knockout when it gets into the ring. The insurgency assumes that if winning the fight means absorbing lots of cuts, bruises, a broken nose, sore ribs, and lost teeth, that's the last kind of fight the US wants to be in and will bow out rather than hunker down. It's a good assumption considering that one of the two major political parties in the US has embraced this position and wants to lead based on this position.

Victory will not be achieved in Iraq for a variety of reasons. Bush and the Republicans were terribly naive to think that a land that had not known democracy in who knows how long would totally embrace it the second we showed up. All the problems on the ground since then have been based on this terribly false assumption. The Democrats are making the same false assumption now in believing that withdrawal will magically make things better. The Democrats are making the same mistake on the back end that Republicans made on the front end. But just as most of the American public bought into the faulty Republican assumptions on the front end, they now seem poised to fall for the same errors on the back end if the polls are to be believed. What do these two things have in common? A disdain for perseverance and a lust to change course at the first sign of trouble. The problems in Iraq are weighty indeed, in no small part because there are no quick fixes. The US has persevered just long enough to know that it doesn't want to persevere anymore. The Iraqi insurgency will not achieve a knockout, but they will win this bout by unanimous decision because 'they want it more than we do'.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Importance of the Gentiles in Matthew

It is often said that Matthew is the 'most Jewish' of the 4 gospels. After all, the major theme of Matthew is God's stepping into history through Christ to fulfill the covenant promises that were too great for sinful humans to fulfill. Yet, this Jewish gospel begins and ends with an emphasis on the gentiles.

In the Matthean genealogy in chapter 1, a number of things should be noted. First, Christ is traced back to Abraham's covenantal promises and the renewal of those promises in David (through a king). The genealogy is deliberately selective in order to highlight this. But more importantly for our discussion, the inclusion of outsiders (women like Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) in the genealogy narrative is jaw-dropping. This inclusion indicates that God's covenant promises are just to the nations, but are fulfilled through the nations, rather than just Israel. The universalism of the gospel to all people and peoples is stressed right at the beginning of this Jewish gospel. The fulfillment of God's promises is dictated by God's sovereign choice, rather than the purity of the human bloodline. The purity of the bloodline never could have fulfilled the covenantal promises. Verse 16 is a strength of the genealogy, not a weakness that needs to be explained away. The bloodline led to exile, and God needed to step into the bloodline to fulfill history because that's the only way promises this good could ever be fulfilled.

Then at the end of Matthew in chapter 28, the Great Commission to the nations is given by the resurrected Christ. Here, the disciples are instructed to replicate Christ's own discipling ministry by making disciples of all the nations. Again, the universal applicability of the gospel to all people is emphasized. Verse 18 should be seen as the fulfillment of Ps. 2:8, and this is critical because it means that Christ is already the universal king exercising a universal reign over the nations in accordance with Daniel by virtue of his resurrection. The Gentiles are no afterthought or appendage in the salvation of the world.

One might find it odd that the incorporation of the gentiles as a fulfillment of the covenant promises would be found in Matthew. On the surface, it might make more sense for this theme to be prominent in Luke or even Mark. But in fact, the Matthean stress on the gentiles is perfectly consistent with its Jewish emphasis. Matthew 10 and 15 both address Jewish evangelism. But chapters 8, 21, and 22 indicate that the boundaries of the Kingdom extend beyond Palestine. The fulfillment of the covenant promises, for Matthew, include the incorporation of the gentiles into the ranks of the redeemed. Why does it make sense to emphasize this in a generally Jewish context? Simple!! Matthew, in doing this, is simply fulfilling the OT vision of Israel. Throughout the OT (Gen. 17, 18.18, 22.18, 26.4; Deut. 15.6, 28.12; Ps. 45.17, 46.10, 47.9, 67.2,4, 72.17, 98.2; Is. 2.2, etc) Israel was to be a light and blessing to the nations. Of course, it didn't work out that way a lot of the time. But this is one of the very reasons why Matthew presents Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of these covenantal promises. It is ultimately through Christ that Israel blesses the nations and the gentiles are ingrafted into the Kingdom.

And what proof do we have that Christ does indeed fulfill this promise. Today, people from every tribe and tongue worship the true God. The redeemed gentiles are a fulfillment of prophecy.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Revelation - A Trinitarian Document

Among the many wonderful things about the book of Revelation that gets lost in the obsessive preoccupation with prophecy and end-times prognostication is its trinitarian presentation. Throughout the Pauline corpus, there are variations of the fairly standard salutation 'Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ' (Rom 1.7, 1C 1.3, 2C 1.2, Gal 1.3, Eph 1.2). Richard Bauckham has noted that this salutation is of critical theological importance because it places Jesus Christ squarely on the divine side of the distinction between what he calls the divine Giver of blessings and the creaturely recipients of blessings. So very early on, there was an implicit understanding among the earliest Christians that Jesus Christ was in some way divine.

But in Revelation, John modifies this standard salutation to make it more trinitarian. While 1 Peter also has hints of a trinitarian opening, John's version of it is unique in 1.4b-5a. Bauckham thinks this opening is a very deliberate adaptation of the more standard Pauline opening. For Bauckham:

This is supported by the fact that [John] adapts the form by substituting for 'God our Father' and 'the Lord Jesus Christ' descriptions of God and Jesus which are highly distinctive of his own usage elsewhere in Revelation. All this suggests...that John has reflected creatively on the Christian understanding of the divine. Far from taking over unreflectively conventional early Christian ways of speaking of God, Christ and the Spirit, he has forged his own distinctive forms of God-language...His book is the product of a highly reflective consciousness of God. Any account of its theology must give its distinctive ways of speaking of the divine (Theology of the Book of Revelation, p. 24)

John's variation of the standard Christian salutation strongly suggests that his perception of the divine was deliberately trinitarian even at this early stage. Now it's clear that we should not attribute to John the fully mature trinitarian theology that became the standard test for orthodoxy two centuries later. But I ask you, how many people, when they think of the book of Revelation, immediately (or ever) think of trinitarian theology? Yet, this basic fact is simply essential to a right understanding of the book at large. Revelation is extremely theocentric, and this means every aspect of its vision of the world both now and to come draw from its understanding of God. Until recently, the doctrine of God (Theology Proper) was the most neglected area of traditional systematics, even during the Reformation period. Luther and Calvin did not stray a great deal from Catholic doctrine regarding Theology Proper, and it is only recently that Protestant scholars such as Frame have devoted a more proper level of effort to this neglected topic. It is little wonder that the trinitarian vision of the divine given to us in Revelation has been largely missed. Next to the Fourth Gospel, Revelation easily has the most developed Trinitarian theology in the NT. As Bauckham notes, Revelation has the potential to reawaken interest in the doctrine of God. In our day of open theism, pluralism, and a terrible neglect of the Holy Spirit, Revelation is perhaps the most profitable part of the Christian canon to vie for the truth in Theology Proper. If only we will move beyond the Last Days Madness in order to see it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Women and the Subject of Sex

It's times like this when I'm glad this blog is not widely read. This post is not likely to make anyone happy, and will probably tick some people off. My goal is not to tick people off for the sake of ticking people off. Nor do I think that what follows is incontrovertible and above challenge. This post is about my own observations and some conclusions from those observations. In other words, there's a lot more opinion than fact here, and my opinions might be misinformed. Have I thrown in enough caveats?! :)

It's no secret that many street-level "women's magazines" are very sexual in nature. The covers of these magazines are sexual if not erotic, and many of the articles inside of Cosmo, Glamour, etc are even more so. I was on a plane one time, and I was sitting next to a teenage girl and her father. With the father wide awake sitting right next to her, his daughter was comfortably reading a very graphic article in Cosmo on ways of obtaining sexual pleasure. The father didn't seem to care, and the daughter didn't seem at all fazed by the content. Now I know some of you are already saying something like, "Foster, please, get with the program! You sound like my grandmother who is hopelessly out of touch with today's world!" Well, maybe so, but my point here is in merely observing how graphic pictures and articles about sex have become thoroughly mainstreamed in our culture so that society itself increasingly seems to be defined by sex. And where it was once conventional wisdom to say that it was the men of society who were sex-crazed, it seems that ever increasing numbers of women are gleefully diving into the same pool.

Not only does this seem to be the case at street-level, it is also the case among the rarified air of the Academy. And perhaps most surprisingly, this can be clearly seen in biblical scholarship. Next month, the oldest biblical society in the US will hold its annual convention in Washington DC. A look at the very thick program for this annual meeting reveals something very interesting. Many female biblical scholars, while concerned with the usual fare of pluralism and gender power issues, are also squarely interested in sex, unlike many of their male colleagues. Among the papers that will be presented by female scholars are titles such as "Paul and the Virility of the Cross", "Religion, Text, and Sex: Contemporary Religious Sex Manuals", "Making Total Women: Sexual Bodies and Sexual Identity...", "Born Again is a Sexual Term: Demons, STDs, and God's Healing Sperm", "How Should a Nice Jewish Orthodox Israeli Couple Do It?", "Catholics Do It Infallibly". Other titles could be listed. In addition, a survey of mainly non-evangelical book publications reveals that at least recently, many of the books put out by female scholars are not only preoccupied with the typical womanist gender fare, but are also devoted to discussing sex. Among the titles, "Real Sex, the Naked Truth about Chastity", and "Sexuality and the US Catholic Church" are just some recent treatments of sex by female biblical scholars. Women's preoccupation with the subject of sex seems to know no strata and doesn't break along lines of 'respectability'. The SBL crowd seems to have quite a bit in common with the Cosmo crowd.

I have periodically suggested that in my view, too many women have been liberated for purposes of being way too much like men. Women are cruder, more violent, more sex obsessed, more ill-mannered, and more materialistic and shallow than I can ever remember. In other words, they're a lot like men have always been. There seems to be a mentality that because culture so long oppressed women and so long encouraged the suppression of sexual desire in women, liberation from this oppression must mean the exact opposite of it. Therefore, what we now have are women who live and breathe the subject of sex, and it doesn't seem to matter whether it's a teenage girl reading Cosmo, or a respected biblical scholar speculating on the sex life of Paul, Jesus, or David's concubine. Apparently, we're supposed to see the embrace of this extreme as progress and liberation. But I confess, I see it as a severe truncation of humanity in general, and women in particular. Women appropriately wanted to be liberated from a cultural milieu that treated them like sexual objects. But one of the results is that many women, in their liberation and freedom, have voluntarily reduced themselves to the very thing thing they were fighting against. I don't get it, but I'm convinced that our society as a whole is worse off as a result. What our society has long needed is for men to improve, not for women to regress. There's nothing wrong with sex and there's nothing wrong with giving a lot of thought to sex in a biblical way. But to make this the sine que non of our everyday thought life and scholarly endeavors is to greatly reduce the sphere of life and puts us in severe imbalance that then impacts everything else we think and do. I love and need women because they are women rather than men. This is not just a statement about sexuality, but about their intelligence, their perspective, their sensitivities, and their values. I fear that too many women are expressing their displeasure with men not by being different from them, but by trying to outdo them. Women are better than this, and the health of our society needs them to be better than this.