Generous Orthodoxy  

The word ortho-doxy (Greek for "right doctrine") has both positive and negative connotations. In a culture that prizes what is iconoclastic and transgressive, orthodoxy has come to sound constricted and unimaginative at best, oppressive and tyrannical at worst.

The position taken on this website is that we cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly and indeed, offending the "righteous" by the indiscriminate nature of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched, or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.
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Fleming's book has gone to the publisher

Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2014

The completed manuscript of Fleming's book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ has gone to Eerdmans Publishing and will be published in 2015. This book, the product of 20 years of work, is designed for pastors and preachers, inquiring lay people, and perhaps seminary students. It is not an academic book, despite its academic pretensions! As the time of publication approaches, I will offer information as to how it might be used in congregations.



Recent Ruminations

The identity of Jesus Christ
Sunday, September 21, 2014

Recently I was saddened to be asked what I thought of Zealot, the best-selling book about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. I was saddened because the man who was asking me is a lifelong churchman, certainly a believer of sorts, and a fine person. He was enthralled by Zealot and had no clue that there had been any criticisms of it. When I tried to explain that Aslan was not a biblical scholar and did not understand the issues, he protested that Aslan had a PhD (it's in sociology).

Particularly discouraging is the fact that these sorts of books are often recommended by clergy, read in church book clubs, and held up as the latest piece of "new" thinking about Jesus. Actually, these books have been coming out since 1778, with Hermann Samuel Reimarus' initial foray into the "historical Jesus." From the standpoint of anyone who loves the Bible and believes in the gospel, it is tiresome to have to deal with these books again and again, rehearsing the same arguments again and again.

To give Aslan his due, he is apparently a lively writer and has given a highly readable account of first-century Palestine; such books do not hit the best-seller list and the airport bookstores unless they are accessible and engaging. I don't intend to read the book (I figure I have about ten years of reading left, God willing, so I choose carefully these days!) but a review by New Testament scholar Greg Carey in Christian Century (September 30, 2013) outlines some of the "misleading information" and "outworn misconceptions" in Zealot.  (I can't give a link because you have to subscribe to read the review.)

The wife of the man who asked me about Zealot later told me that she also had read it. She made one comment: "It diminishes Jesus."

That's it exactly. That is the point that needs to be made about Zealot to all who really seek to learn, understand, and follow the man who is called "my Lord and my God" by Christians (as the disciple Thomas does in John 20:28).

Of course anyone is free to write anything they want about Jesus. Christianity does not issue fatwas against, let alone decapitate, people who diminish or dismiss our Master and Redeemer.  But it seems to me that it is part of our Christian duty to stand up and explain why these books which purport to tell us about the "real" Jesus are bogus.

Let's say it again: we have no access to the "historical Jesus." Such reconstructions are guesswork, shaded by the personal biases of the writers. We know nothing whatever of the historical Jesus--though it can safely be assumed that he did indeed live "under Pontius Pilate" and was crucified. The four Gospels are not history. They are testimonies to the Messiah of Israel and Son of God. These are claims that can be made only by faith. The various writers of the New Testament are testifying "by faith, for faith."  That's why reading "the Bible as history" or "the Bible as literature" is doomed to failure (although I will admit that The Great Code, by the distinguished literary critic Northrup Frye, comes close to success...but then Frye was a believer of sorts). The Bible is not a scholar's book;  it is the church's book, by which the church lives.

I am at a loss as to how to counter the enthusiasm for Jesus-diminishing books. Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus (1996) is still an excellent takedown of the historical Jesus movement by a New Testament scholar writing for a popular audience. For those interested in undertaking a more rigorous scholarly approach, there is How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (2005) by Larry Hurtado, another New Testament professor, who writes from a more historical perspective, but with theological convictions.

The way to meet the real Jesus has always been the same: listen to someone who knows him. Read the sermons of the great preachers who knew him (I have all of Spurgeon in my laptop). I sent a copy of Theodore Parker Ferris' sermons, What Jesus Did, to the man who asked me about Zealot.

Will Willimon, the celebrated preacher of our day, wrote somewhere that the Jesus-diminishers all have one underlying assumption: Jesus is dead. That's the difference, right there. The "real Jesus" is not a figure of the past to be studied like other historical persons. He is the Saviour who through the Spirit is alive in our present, and he is the reigning Lord of the future of the created order.



 
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Pelagius, Augustine, and the "Rape of Nanking": orthodoxy in disarray (part two)
Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The "rape of Nanking," a terrible atrocity that occurred over six weeks at the end of the year 1937 in the Chinese city (now transliterated as Nanjing) was largely overlooked in the West until it entered the popular mind in 1997 with the publication of a best-seller, The Rape of Nanking, by a young Princeton-born Chinese-American journalist, Iris Chang, who became famous and then developed "reactive psychosis" and took her own life.

The Yale Divinity School has an archive on the Nanking massacres:
http://divinity-adhoc.library.yale.edu/Nanking/
And here is a short capsule explaining the horrific six-week episode of mass murder and mass rape:
 http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/nanking.htm

What has this got to do with the Augustine-Pelagius debate and Christian doctrine?

Here's what. A few weeks ago, wanting to understand more, I went on a binge of watching movies about the events in Nanjing during those terrible six weeks of 1937. One of them, John Rabe, tells the story of a "good German," a member of the Nazi Party, who was a leader of the international community of doctors and missionaries who set up an International Safety Zone within Nanjing, thereby saving hundreds of thousands. (Other hundreds of thousands perished.) The second one, Flowers of War, by respected director Zhang Yimou who has done some excellent work in the past, was tarted up with Christian Bale and a glamorous prostitute (the central episode of self-sacrifice, however, is based on a real event). The third and fourth films, City of Life and Death and Nanjing, are justly admired treatments in quasi-documentary style. The History Channel also has a 40-minute documentary on YouTube.

I have never been bothered by violence in movies and do not flinch from it, in most cases. Often it is clearly just cinema. However, as I watched all this material from the Nanjing massacres (and much of it is profoundly disturbing and truly sickening to see), I was appalled to discover something happening in myself. I am, naturally, ashamed of this, but I am admitting it in the interests of something greater. I began to be repulsed and fascinated at the same time. I began actually to want to see more violent episodes because of the sensations they produced. I could feel something happening in myself that lay far beyond the reach of my conscious will.

Why am I admitting to this alarming propensity? Because I believe it is universal.  I believe, with good cause, that any person under certain circumstances can become anesthetized by pure sensation, so that one becomes capable of reactions that otherwise would be very out of character--reactions that in certain circumstances will lead to actions. Take for example the recent book What Soldiers Do by Mary Louise Roberts, which details the appalling behavior of many American GIs after the liberation of Paris, acting with impunity and the active encouragement of senior officers. There have been numerous stories out of our recent wars, from the massacre at My Lai (Vietnam, 1968) to the Haditha killings (Iraq, 2005). The photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (2004) displayed what can happen when ordinary American soldiers are allowed free rein to indulge in sadistic fantasies without fear of repercussions. In Jarhead, his book about the Gulf War, Anthony Swofford told how his Marine unit repeatedly watched supposedly anti-war films like Platoon to bond over their delight in the violent scenes, without any context other than that of warrior culture.

I'm suggesting that there is something wrong with us all, something beyond our conscious wills, that causes us to lose our bearings. The vile torture-murderers of today's ISIS seem truly to believe that they are no worse than the Americans who were in charge of Abu Ghraib. The negotiations now taking place about releasing a cache of Abu Ghraib photos that have so far been withheld from the public are not encouraging in this regard; they are said to be much worse than the ones previously published. The young Americans in the photos we have already seen, giving thumbs-up signs over dead bodies, laughing and joking at the humiliation and torture of others, would have lived and died as ordinary citizens if they had not been placed in the midst of the fog of war with no moral guidance from their leaders.

These human failings, which ail us all even though only some of us get found out, are caused by Sin. Sin is as forbidden a word in the church today as are racial epithets. St Paul's teaching about Sin as a Power operating in the world independently of human positive thinking is little understood and very seldom preached or explained. Instead, the popularity of "human potential" and "human possibility" holds the center. That's what Pelagius believed in. His writings have survived only second hand, but he seems to have feared (as we do today) that our self-esteem and our motivation to do good would suffer if we were to take seriously a gospel of undeserved, radical grace.

The goodness that overcomes evil in this world is not a result of human potential but of divine gift. It lives out of hope and faith in the God who has restored human nature in his Son Jesus Christ, alive in the Spirit as a guarantee or "down payment" of our inheritance in salvation "until we acquire possession of it" (Ephesians 1:14). In this life we must live with the ambiguous fact that the "world rulers of this present darkness" (Eph. 6:10) are as near to us as our own unconscious, and more dangerous to our soul's health than we can ever understand if we continue to look for such health inside ourselves. There is no unsullied location in the human interior where we can find victory over the "elemental spirits of the universe" who seek to enslave us (Galatians 4:3). The only victory over Sin is found in the direct action of God who "sent forth his Son...so through God you are no longer a slave but a son/daughter" (Gal. 4:4-7).

Years ago, the mainline churches used to sneer at Norman Vincent Peale, with his "power of positive thinking," but his form of the Pelagian gospel of human potential has just been replaced by another, in the form of various kinds of self-affirming messages clothed in "spiritual" language, as though Sin did not exist. These lies are not only evasions of the truth about ourselves and the Powers we face, not only pablum about the benignity of the creation as though it were unfallen, but most deceitful of all, they violate the truth about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ who gave himself up to the Powers of Sin and Death in order to save the entire created order from its bondage and to restore the true image of humanity. He accomplished this by recapitulating the human story in his own human life, the only human life that has ever been lived free from the power of Sin. It is precisely in absorbing the onslaught of Sin into himself that he won the victory and was raised into eternal life on our behalf. It is in his agony and death that we see the final judgment upon the infernal Powers, and it is in his resurrection--and in that alone--that we see the final defeat of all that afflicts the human race.
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The triumph of the human spirit? two magazine pages
Saturday, September 20, 2014

Every week, the New York Times Magazine contains a photo of an interesting person, illustrating a page of Q & A between an interviewer and the interesting person. This Sunday, September 21, features David Suchet, the actor who has played Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's fastidious Belgian detective, for 25 years. Here is one of the questions asked by Hope Reeves, the interviewer:

I read that you grew up without religion but became a Christian in 1986, at age 40.

And here is his answer:

I've always felt that there must be something better than what we have here. And that certainly, for me, has never been found in humanistic philosophy. I'm not that impressed with us as human beings, with what we're doing to the planet and to each other. We're a pretty cruel animal.

One of many reasons that this is so striking is that David Suchet, a convert to the Christian faith, is saying what very few of our clergy and lay teachers are willing to say. Instead, our leaders have swallowed the secular gospel of human potential, human possibility, and "the triumph of the human spirit." The clear story-line of the Scriptures, that humankind has fallen into the grip of Sin and Death and is unable to free itself without divine intervention, is either ignored or actively rejected by numerous voices that I hear in the church. Thus the preaching of the Cross of Christ is reduced to a message of suffering love to cherish and emulate, but without the corresponding factor of Jesus' submission, as the crucified One, to the malign Powers of the demonic--and his climactic and decisive victory over them. How can we truly celebrate Christ's resurrection if we do not acknowledge the lethal nature of the forces that hold humanity imprisoned?

This lies at the heart of the Augustinian-Pelagian debate that I'm discussing in my Ruminations on this website.

********

On the page of the NYT Magazine just opposite the interview with David Suchet, there is a full-color ad for a high-end real estate company. The model, Misty Copeland, is a soloist in the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre company. She is dramatically posed on a sofa bare-assed (albeit not topless), displaying her elegant legs and ballet-slippered feet in a provocative fashion. The text says, "For leading soloist Misty Copeland, home is a stage on which to express herself."

As a lifelong lover of the ballet, I find this appalling on every level. The great choreographer George Balanchine famously did not permit his dancers to "express themselves." Ballet was about music and movement in the service of transcendent values. The coarsening of this tradition in the last ten years or so, with dancers in the NYC Ballet (Balanchine's company) posing for reductive, or suggestive) photos of themselves with cutesy "we're just people like you" quotes displayed in ads and in the theater, has been very discouraging (and much criticized by discerning ballet-lovers). The new ad for the NYCB shows the greatly admired soloist Tiler Peck posed as if she were just waking up, not from Sleeping Beauty's long rest, but from an energetic night in bed, complete with up-to-there legs (again with those toe shoes) and what looks like tousled sheets. I am not just complaining about the vulgarity of the way ballet is being marketed now. I am thinking of the great Balanchine ballerina Suzanne Farrell and how appalled she would be to think that "expressing oneself" was a goal of classical dance. This is the way we live now, with the supposedly unfettered self at the center of it all ... but David Suchet's observations tell the truth about that lie.

Jesus is Lord, confessed the early Christians. He is Lord over the demonic forces that cause us to be profoundly estranged from our true selves. Balanchine, an authentic genius, envisioned the ballerina's supreme command onstage, not because she was "expressing herself," but because she bore in her person the vision of that realm wherein the power of God has liberated humanity from all forms of debasement.

(I am not alone in saying this; many people have written about it. Balanchine was an observant believer of sorts [Russian Orthodox] and did not deny these interpretations of his work.)


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