Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Influence of John H. Walton on Biblical Studies

If you looked at my academic transcript, you might notice that although I studied at Wheaton College, I never officially enrolled in a class with John Walton. But if you concluded from this that he hasn't influenced me, you'd be sorely mistaken. Sitting in my classes or reading what I've written or what I assign my students to read, you'd see that Walton's influence is pervasive. I consider him one of my most influential mentors.

Actually, I did sit in on one class with Walton as a PhD student, his "Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds." That class opened up a whole new world for me--the ancient world of the Bible. Walton modeled for us how to read Scripture well by understanding the ancient context in which it was written. He repeatedly insisted that the Bible was written for us, but not to us. The benefits of access to written Scripture are enormous, but if we think that the Bible addresses us directly, we are bound to misunderstand its claims. 

One way to measure the influence of John Walton is by the work of his students. In August I had the joy of joining a Zoom call to surprise Walton with a Festschrift in his honor. The German term Festschrift means "celebratory writing." In this case, a group of more than 20 former students of Walton who are now biblical and theological scholars themselves contributed essays in his honor. The volume. published by Pickwick, is finally available! It's appropriately titled, For Us, but Not To Us: Essays on Creation, Covenant, and Context in Honor of John H. Walton.

I want to be in the ZOOM where it happens . . . (photo: C Imes)

John was totally surprised. We spent 45 minutes talking about his influence on us as scholars and as people. A few themes emerged. In addition to the ways he trains his students to do rigorous work and his commitment to accessible writing that will benefit the church at large, John is a wonderful mentor and friend. He churns out books faster than I can read them, yet he never seems hurried. He walks slowly and always has time for students. He once agreed to meet with me before 7am to discuss a paper I was writing. He and his wife Kim are famous for having students in their home, and he has a special place in his heart for the children who tag along. Each year he invites former students to have breakfast with him at the SBL annual meeting. He foots the bill and wanders happily from table to table, visiting with us and asking us about our work. 

John Walton thanked us for honoring him. Adam Miglio is the masked man in the background.

I'll never forget the time I encountered "Dr. Walton" in the hallway and he told me it was time to start calling him "John." Although John has never supervised a doctoral student, he has actively and deliberately invested in the next generation of scholars, treating us as colleagues and friends. We hope that our volume shows the fruit of that generous investment.

The title of my essay shows the indebtedness of my thinking to Walton. In the vein of his famous "Lost World" series of books, I've called it “The Lost World of the Exodus: Functional Ontology and the Creation of a Nation.” In it, I argue that Exodus is a creation story -- not so much the material creation of something from nothing, but the bestowal of order and function on the Hebrew people, making them a new nation. Here's a sneak peek: 


It's been almost two years of keeping this secret, so I'm delighted that we can finally share it with the world! Special thanks to Adam Miglio, Caryn Reeder, Kenneth Way, and Joshua Walton for their skilled editorial work, organization, and communication. It was an immense privilege to contribute to this project. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

My Surprise Citizenship Story

If you've read Bearing God's Name, then you've already heard the surprising story of my citizenship. Some readers told me it even made them cry! I also tell my story in the companion videos produced by Seminary Now, and they've given me permission to share the clip with all of you here. 


This is a taste of the content you'd get if you watch the whole series. We recorded videos to go with each chapter of the book. Each video lasts less than 10 minutes and they work with or without the book. Best of all, subscribers get access to all of the great teaching videos at Seminary Now. You can learn from John Walton, Scot McKnight, Brenda Salter McNeil, Esau McCaulley, David Fitch, and many more!

Is your small group looking to level up their learning?
Do you want to stop scrolling and start being intentional about what's feeding your brain?
Seminary Now is a great way to do that. I'd love to know which videos you decide to watch.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Lament's Crucial Role in the Ministry of the Church

In my last post, I discussed three misconceptions about lament. Now I'd like to highlight four reasons why lament is essential to the ministry of the church. I'll be drawing on the excellent work of a Ugandan author, Emmanuel Katongole, catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame. His book, Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, is one of the best on this topic.

Did you know that laments outnumber any other type of psalm in the Bible? This may come as a surprise because most of us rarely hear lament psalms in church. The truth is, they make up 40% of the book of Psalms! (See Katongole, 104)

Not only that. By my count almost 25% of the psalms include "imprecatory" language, which is when the psalmist prays for God to bring harm on his enemies. For reasons I'll share below, I believe that these psalms are for Christians, too. Why can we not get along well without lament? Here are four reasons:

1. God's character is the basis of lament.
As Emmanuel Katongole reminds us, 
"At the heart of Israel's social, political, and religious life is the central conviction and experience of Yahweh as a saving God. Yahweh is not only the creator of the world and sovereign ruler of nations; Israel is God's chosen nation, which, through a covenant relationship, enjoys God's special favor and protection. For biblical Israel, therefore, safety and security are found not in military strength or wealth or technological advantage, but in the covenant relationship with Yahweh. Thus in the moment of crisis, because they believed that God can, should--and indeed, would--do something to save them, they complained, mourned, wept, chanted dirges, and cursed." (Born from Lament103-104)
This point is especially true of imprecatory psalms (the ugly, violent-sounding ones). If we cut out the violent parts of the psalms, we deny part of God’s essential character. YHWH’s self-description in Exodus 34:6-7 highlights divine mercy, but it also says of God: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (NRSV). The God of the Old Testament is YHWH, the covenant-making and redeeming God who rescues and saves, who demonstrates love and who takes sin seriously.

Would we prefer it otherwise? Would we prefer a world where rampant evil goes unchecked? Where corrupt despots get rich by oppressing others? Would we prefer for people to be allowed to destroy each other’s lives and reputations by spreading false rumors about them with impunity? Or are we grateful that God wields his power in loving ways by putting a stop to injustice? 

If we believe that God takes sin seriously, then we can accept the Bible's invitation to pray that he will act to bring the unrepentant to justice. 
2. Jesus modeled lament.
The book of Hebrews tells us that even Jesus lamented. "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission." (Hebrews 5:7)

Jesus' tearful prayers did not disqualify him. He was still "without sin." And here the author of Hebrews says that his lament was evidence of "reverent submission." Remember that on the cross Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" This, too, was a faithful way to pray in the midst of his darkest hour. If Jesus is our model, then lament is an indispensable part of faithful discipleship.
3. Without lament, our worship spaces are less safe.
We live in a world full of brokenness at every level ranging from international to intensely personal. The people walking through our doors (or tuning in) on a Sunday morning are the same people who are enduring hardship throughout their week. If our church services are mostly a pep rally or an exhortation to "trust more," and fail to reckon honestly with brokenness, we essentially send people elsewhere to find solutions to their problems. Introducing lament in corporate worship creates space to be real -- to bring our pain to God and cry out for healing.

When we don't acknowledge pain in church, we get less of God and less of each other. As my friend Amy Oden recently put it, "I find more of God when I am most angry with him." Expressing our true emotions in his presence opens us up to meet him in deeper ways. It also opens us to each other.
Why would we deny this opportunity to our congregations? I can think of one reason why: FEAR. We fear that if we create space for lament, people will be offended or discouraged. But in reality, the opposite happens. By restricting our prayers to praise, we deny people access to the full message of Scripture. We lose people who think that their lives and emotions are too complex for the church. If your congregation is likely to be offended by lament, then they have not embraced the whole counsel of Scripture. Teach them what the Bible says about it. Cultivate a space where people can pray how they feel and in so doing discover that they are not alone.
4. Lament is the foundation of social justice.
The consequences of neglecting lament go beyond our local congregation. Not only will individuals not feel that the church is a safe place to bring their whole selves, but the church will lose its ability to impact the wider culture by addressing societal brokenness. 
Katongole explains, "In the end, the loss of lament signals of loss of passion for social justice. A church that has lost its nerve to lament before God will likely lack the nerve to confront oppression and be prone to support the status quo. But that is also the reason why an attempt to recover the language of lament is about solidarity with those who suffer" (183).
The historic failure of white evangelicals to lament racial injustice unveils the root of our problem--we see racial discrimination as something happening to somebody else and being done by somebody else. By identifying with neither the perpetrators nor the victims, we maintain distance. As long as we are distant we cannot be part of the solution. Unless we see crimes against people of color as crimes against our fellow humans, we excuse ourselves from taking action.  
If we cannot corporately bring to God those problems that overwhelm us, where will we bring them? If we are not comfortable creating space for our brothers and sisters to pray and weep, how can we even begin to work with them to find solutions? If their grief does not become our own, on what basis will we build unity? Where else will we find the resources to address whatever threatens to undo us? The first step in imagining a different kind of future is to grieve together and to grieve deeply over what has been done and what is being done.
If we want to (1) know God, (2) follow Christ, (3) minister to broken people, and (4) make a difference in a broken world, then lament is essential. On its own, lament is not enough. It is not the whole answer. But without it, we lose our grip on the resilient hope of the gospel.

------

For more on lament, see my interview with Remnant Radio. 
For more on imprecatory prayer, see my blog post for the Political Theology Network.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Announcing . . . Companion Videos for 'Bearing God's Name'

I've been holding in a secret for almost six months (which might be a record for me). I've dropped a few hints, but wasn't allowed to say anything official until now. TODAY is the day I finally get to tell you about it!

Back in January, I was invited to fly to Chicago to film a video series based on my latest book. We filmed the entire series on the campus of Wheaton College (where I got my doctorate) in a single, grace-filled day. It was surreal to return to the very place where I discovered the truths that I share in Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters. It was so meaningful to be on site, rehearsing the content that has captured my attention for almost 10 years, so that I could share it with all of YOU. I'll show you the building where it all happened.

We recorded 10 short videos, one for each chapter of the book. If you're not a reader, these videos will convey the essential content of the book. If you've already read the book, these videos will reinforce the key ideas and help you share them with your small group.

You can check out the trailer here.

As a special bonus, I'll even take you with me to the Marion Wade Center on the campus of Wheaton College, where you'll see the desk on which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings and the wardrobe handmade for C. S. Lewis and his brother by their grandfather. (If you've already read the introduction to Bearing God's Name, you can probably guess how this relates to the book!)











Beginning today, you can access my video series and many others for personal enrichment or to explore with your small group. The project was envisioned and executed by an exciting new initiative hosted at Northern Seminary called Seminary Now.

Seminary Now is a new, on-demand streaming video platform that provides exclusive Bible, theology, and ministry courses from today’s leading teachers, ministry practitioners, and authors.

Like Netflix or Masterclass, subscribers get unlimited access to all courses—available on smart phone, tablet, and TV devices. You can earn also a certificate from Seminary Now by completing a learning track. 

Visit SeminaryNow.com for a free preview of the new course offerings. Here's the best part: when you join, you can not only access my videos, but also every other course on the website. Join today and access exclusive content from yours truly, Scot McKnight, John Walton, Brenda Salter McNeil, Ruth Haley Barton, and many more. At checkout, receive a limited-time 15% discount (pay only $17/month or $153/year) with coupon code TAKE15. Or check out the group pricing for your staff and lay leaders.

This is a fantastic opportunity for an individual, couple, or small group that wants to dig deeper into Scripture and learn from some of today's top thought-leaders.

Please forward this opportunity to others who you think would be interested in this new resource and like and share SeminaryNow.com on social media: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Three Misconceptions about Lament

Things are bad in this world of ours. An awful lot of hard stuff is going on. If there was ever a time to cry, this is it. But many Christians shy away from lament because they believe lament is somehow sub-Christian or perhaps they think it won't do any good. 

I've identified three reasons Christians avoid lament. All three are misconceptions. We'll tackle them one at a time:

(1) Lament shows a lack of faith.

If we really believe that God is good and powerful and that he will win in the end, then we would not need to lament, right? Singer-songwriter Michael Card disagrees. In his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, Card says this: 
"Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of belief in God. Despair is the ultimate manifestation of the total denial that He exists." (55)
In other words, if you did not believe in the existence of God, there would be no reason to lament. It would do no good. It's because we do believe in God, and trust him as the only one who is able to make things right that we present our most desperate requests to him.

In fact, the Bible offers many examples of faithful men and women who bring prayers of lament to God. Those prayers made it into our Bibles without condemnation. Some of them were included in the book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. Their presence in Scripture implies that we are invited to pray laments, too.

Michael Card explains it this way: 
"People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that prayers of complaint can still be prayers of faith. They represent the last refusal to let go of the God who may seem to be absent or worse -- uncaring. If this is true, then lament expresses one of the more intimate moments of faith -- not a denial of it. It is supreme honesty before a God whom my faith tells me I can trust. He encourages me to bring everything as an act of worship, my disappointment, frustration, and even my hate. Only lament uncovers this kind of new faith, a biblical faith that better understands God's heart as it is revealed through Jesus Christ." (31)
Lament is not faith-less, it's faith-full.
 
(2) Lament is the opposite of gratitude. 

How can we lament when the Bible urges us to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18)? Doesn't thankfulness preclude lament? One might think so, but again Scripture shows us that lament and gratitude go hand in hand.

In Psalm 44, the sons of Korah remember with gratitude the way that God has acted on Israel's behalf in the past (vv. 1-8). It's against the backdrop of their gratitude that they can plead with God to rescue them again (vv. 9-25). The character of God expressed in history leads them to trust God's future deliverance:
"Rise up and help us; rescue us because of your unfailing love." (Psalm 44:26)
We need not fear that lament will shut out our gratitude. For reasons I'll explain further below, lament and gratitude actually depend on one another.

(3) Lament will lead to despair. 

Some of us don't want to lament for fear of becoming bitter old souls. We don't want to get stuck. But on the contrary, it is our refusal to lament that leads to bitterness and despair. When we try to carry the grief on our own or manage our own solutions to life's deepest problems, the pressure is too much to bear.

Emmanuel Katongole explains, 
"Pain . . . has the ability to destroy language, to reduce the victim to silence. This silence is a form of powerlessness, a paralyzing form of despair. Therefore, the ability to voice grief, to find words to speak the unspeakable and to name pain, is a form of resistance to the paralyzing silence." (Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, 56)
The pathway to joy requires us to pass through the gateway of lament -- acknowledging that all is not well in the world and that we believe our God is able to do something about it. Until we look our pain and loss directly in the face, we will be unable to let it go. 

Have you seen the Pixar movie "Inside Out"? When it seems like everything has fallen apart, Joy learns an important lesson: the value of Sadness. You can watch a clip here. Joy tries valiantly to cheer up Bing Bong by distracting him, but Sadness holds the key: by acknowledging the pain of Bing Bong's loss and making space to grieve, he is able to move forward and soon they are (literally) back on track.

So let's imagine that I've convinced you that lament is not sub-Christian. You might be wondering what to do next. What if you are just not the "emotional" type? How can you tell if you need to lament? How do you start?

One way to tell that we have unexpressed grief is when we lose our capacity to feel deep joy. I like to think of the spectrum of emotions that we experience as a window. On the left side of the window are emotions that we tend to characterize as negative -- anger, grief, fear --  while on the right-hand side are the emotions we see as positive -- joy, gratitude, delight. 


Photo Credit: Rob Wingate on Unsplash 

Hanging inside our emotional window is a set of old-fashioned drapes. Perhaps you remember the kind. To close the drapes, you pull a looped cord on one side of the window and both drapes gradually close until they meet in the middle. Our emotional life is like this. We cannot block just one side of the window. Closing the left side means closing the right side as well. If we suppress our feelings of grief or anger, we make it impossible to feel gratitude and joy.

I am not a trained counselor, but it's been my experience that if I find it hard to laugh along with others or enjoy a happy gathering, there is likely some unexpressed grief lodged in my soul. We can never recover our joy by imagining away our sorrow. We have to face it. Name it. Pray it. And thereby release it to God. Then we can pull our drapes open and let light back in the room.

That's why I'm so thankful for the book of Psalms. It tutors us in prayer, giving us words when we have none, and modeling the full range of ways to connect with God. If we categorize the psalms into  lament, praise, and other psalms, we find that there are more laments than any other type of psalm. That should tell us something about the life of prayer, and it should give us courage to bring our sorrows to God. 

If you have been feeling numb, you can start by making a list of things that are bothering you. It may be news headlines or it may be personal. Then bring your list to God. Find a psalm that expresses your heart -- maybe Psalm 4 or Psalm 88. Pray those words and add your own. God wants to hear your heart.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Author Interview: Sandra Richter

In this post I'm taking you behind the pages of Stewards of Eden to meet the author, Sandra Richter. Sandy, thanks for taking the time to tell us about your work!

So great to get to interact on this important topic, Carmen. Thank you for the invitation!

When did you first know that you wanted to write this book?

Sandra L. Richter, Author of Stewards of Eden
Hmmm … that is a good question, and one I haven’t answered before. Although my love for God’s creation goes back to before I was even a Christian, the whole business of writing and speaking on this topic in Christian circles just sort of “happened.” As I narrate in the book, the first time I had the privilege of sharing a message of environmental stewardship from a pulpit was 2005 at Asbury Theological Seminary. The response was everything I could have hoped for. And to my surprise, I was asked to publish that message in the Asbury Journal. At the time of publication, I was serving on the Institute of Biblical Research planning committee, and we were casting about for a topic for the following year. I suggested that we do a plenary session on creation care. They said “yes,” if I would be one of the speakers. I was thrilled, but it also meant I had to seriously up my ante—now I needed a message appropriate for an academic conference. Man did I work hard on the research for that presentation. And in the fall of 2008 at the annual meeting … once again the response was everything I could have asked for. Rick Hess, editor of BBR was at the gathering and asked me to publish that presentation. Then there were a slew of speaking engagements—some more enthusiastically received than others. (There was a certain week-long “Holiness Conference” at a not-to-be-named Christian College where I think 17 people total showed up; then there was that walk-out at another not-to-be-named college; and, oh, the conference where I presented on humane animal husbandry in the heart of cattle country in Tulsa--that was a bit awkward!). In each of these my material evolved and developed. Usually the response was beautiful. (I’m thinking of Darryl Williamson’s "Arise City Conference" in Tampa, FL, and the older sister who stood to her feet at the end of my talk, called everybody out, and ran what could be called an altar call for me!) But I think the first time I knew I wanted to publish this book was during my tenure at Wheaton College. I realized (as I narrate in the book), that the Christian community needed a short, accessible, biblical treatment of this topic. A book that didn’t get lost on side issues. A book students could read (quickly), hand off to their parents, and they to the grandparents. I wanted to offer the Church their own book on this topic: “What Scripture says about the environment and why it matters.”  

Did you grow up in a home that valued conservation? If so, how did your parents practice conservation? If not, when did you become passionate about creation care?

No, I can’t say that I did. Like yours, my family was frugal. And like yours we camped a lot (there were a lot of us and we were military—cheap vacations!). I do think the camping and some of the adventurous places we lived as an oft-relocated Navy family awakened my deep empathy for the trials of creation. But I wasn’t raised with any sort of tutelage in environmentalism. Honestly, I think my passion for creation is part of my journey to faith. I believe that it was the image of God in me (prevenient grace for the Wesleyans out there!), and the Spirit of God calling me, that caused the majestic and fragile beauty of creation to resonate so deeply with me. As I say in the book: “When I stand at the ocean’s edge and feel the spray of its raging force on my face, when the wind silences me, when I am privileged to hold a wild creature in my hands” … my response is worship. This has always been true of me—even before I knew the Creator’s name.

What are the biggest hang-ups for evangelicals when it comes to creation care? Do you have a theory about why this is?

Having lectured and written on this topic for more than a decade at this point, I am pretty convinced that the “hang-ups” can be distilled to three issues. (1) The fact that in American politics environmentalism has been pigeon-holed into a “liberal” political agenda and has become guilty by association. Essentially, the accusation is that if you care about stewarding the planet you must also be a “liberal.” (2) The fact that we as Americans don’t typically see the impact of environmental degradation. We export most of our mess and never see the widow and the orphan picking through the trash piles we create. (3) The very unfortunate theological agenda that teaches that this earth will be annihilated at the end of the age. I deal with this misunderstanding of the New Covenant in chapter seven of the book.

You're a busy professor married to a professor with two growing daughters. What inspired you to raise chickens in your backyard? Surely not boredom?

Hah! The infamous chickens! Well Greta, Maggs, and Lucy will be thrilled to know they made the blog! Buttercup, may she rest in peace, will be grieved to have missed out. And we’ll be sure to send a note over to their sisters Sadie and Penelope who are keeping our friends Jack and Maggie in eggs these days! So, yes, I am “wicked busy,” but you make time for what you love don’t you? The chickens were a project for my youngest daughter and me. We both really wanted to do it, and Santa Barbara is a perfect place to raise chickens. California is a very libertarian state, so you can have chickens (not roosters) in pretty much any suburb. Better, you don’t have to heat your chicken coop to keep any of your hen’s feet from freezing off! More seriously, it is important to me that I practice what I preach. So in our house we recycle everything, we compost, we hang out our wash, we read labels, we eat very little meat, we have a vegetable garden, I drive a used Prius, we have rain barrels, and we’ve dropped all sorts of $$$ to landscape with native plants (which in SoCal means less water). Like any homeowner, I’m still learning (like what about solar panels?), but as I believe that environmental stewardship is a part of my responsibility as a Christian … I’m doing my best.  

Climate change is one of the most controversial aspects of the current debate about environmental concerns. Why did you choose not to talk about it in your book?

Great question. Several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the Bible has nothing to say about climate change. So any biblical theology of climate change is going to have to be an extrapolation—something I did not want to be doing in a book I promised was “just the Bible for those justly concerned.” Second and closely related, the steps any believer should be taking to curtail their own over-use of this planet and its resources will help to reverse climate change. So in many ways, climate change is a moot point. If we’d been doing our job as good stewards, we wouldn’t be having this problem. So what changes are needed? As Gus Speth, Chairman of the council on Environmental Quality under President Jimmy Carter has stated:

"I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy."

I say it this way in the book: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains. He has given it to us to use in our need, but not to abuse in our greed.” When we get serious about our careless consumption of fossil fuel; when we start thinking about the supply chain for that fuel, our manufactured goods, our food; when we take stock of reckless land development … climate change will begin to unchange. So, yes, climate change is a huge issue that our carelessness has brought to the tipping point, but it is one that regular old responsible stewardship would have/still can resolve.

One of our first purchases when we moved to our current house was a 3-part trash bin for the kitchen, so that we could sort trash from plastic and paper recyclables. Our town has no recycling pick-up program, but we do have a local recycle center where we can bring our own recyclables. We've been pretty diligent about sorting trash making trips there. However, we heard a year or two ago that all the plastic recycling ends up in a landfill anyway because China will no longer accept plastics for recycling, and North America lacks the facilities to handle the volume of plastic waste. Have you explored this issue? Why should we keep sorting recyclables if it all ends up in the landfill anyway?

Yes, in 2018, China said, “We don’t want your trash anymore.” This, of course, sent major reverberations through many US businesses. If China wasn’t going to take our trash anymore, and we are now packaging everything from blueberries to underwear to new tools for our work bench in plastic, what are we going to do? The first question we should ask, of course, is why were we sending our trash overseas in the first place? Where is our sense of national responsibility? And what about the widow and the orphan in China?

The next question is, “Uh oh, if China has been recycling our plastic, do we have the infrastructure in the US to take care of our recycling ourselves?” And the answer right now is, no.  At this point we have more than 20 types of plastic packaging—and every time I go to the grocery store I see that COSTCO and Kroger have figured out a new way to use plastic for stuff that used to come loose or in cardboard. As a result, “virgin plastic” accounts for most of the plastic you and I see, which is produced by petro-chemical companies. These guys make billions producing their plastic (and will make billions more as current plans are to double the industry in the next five years). As the name implies, petro-chemical companies are using fossil fuels to make their stuff. And right now, virgin plastic costs less than 10% of the cost of recycled plastic. So what is a capitalist economy to do? The first thing we need to do is to be disturbed. Statistics such as those below should be a huge wake-up call:

  • More than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die from plastic pollution every year; 100% of baby sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. 
  • Every day around 8 million pieces of plastic make their way into our oceans.
  •  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (made up primarily of plastic) is bigger than Texas. 
Then we need to do something. What to do? Vote with your pocket book. Buy plastic packaging as little as possible. Choose the “avoid plastic packaging and extra packaging” option with Amazon. When you have to buy plastic, look for “recycled” on the label. Tell your grocery store manager you don’t want your food in “clam shell” packaging. Tell COSTCO that apples don’t occur naturally in plastic bubbles. Basically, let us make it as socially inappropriate to buy and sell in plastic as it is to smoke cigarettes in the work place!

Your book goes beyond recycling to talk about mining and food production. Those case studies were incredibly eye-opening for me, especially in light of the biblical teaching on agriculture and animal husbandry that you so powerfully explain. What can one person do to make a difference in a culture marked by greed and consumerism?

Thanks for this question, Carmen. The last section of Stewards of Eden is entitled “Resources for the Responsive Christian.” This appendix gives very practical, hands-on, “I can do this,” suggestions for the average human. Things like getting informed (subscribe to an environmental magazine in order to educate yourself); voting your informed conscience (Sierra Club offers a voting guide every year); voting with your purchase power are a great way to start. Links and addresses are all in there. As above, one powerful thing all Americans and Canadians can do is vote with their purchase power. We are capitalists, oh, yes we are. And if it doesn’t sell, the industry makes changes! So when you go to the grocery store, the hardware store, the car dealership, be willing to spend a bit more to invest in the industries you want to thrive. As with all things in our fallen world, we are not actually going to be able to fix this. The Rider on the White Horse is going to have to do that. Just as I will never succeed in emptying all the brothels in Thailand, finding a home for every abused child abandoned to the foster care system, or feed every orphan in Sub Sahara Africa—I am not going to fix this either. But as a Christian, it is my sworn duty to stand in the gap. It is our calling as salt and light to demonstrate to our bruised and broken world what a citizen of heaven looks like, “to live our lives as Adam and Eve should have, as Jesus Christ has.” Environmental degradation is a global and a local issue, our neighbors are impacted by this, our neighbors care about this. Where is our witness in the mix?  In sum, what I attempt to demonstrate in the book is that God cares about this, and we must too.
It's hard to imagine a more compelling book on this topic for Christians who care about what the Bible teaches about creation. Thanks for your excellent work to help us think well about environmental stewardship! 


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Book Review: Sandra Richter's 'Stewards of Eden'

I grew up in a white, American, conservative Evangelical context, where "environmentalist" was a derogatory term. To us, environmental concerns were a liberal agenda. We certainly didn't want to be guilty of getting all wrapped up in saving the planet when the thing that mattered was people and their eternal destiny. 

At the same time, being of Dutch descent, it came naturally to avoid waste. We washed and reused ziplock bags, kept scraps of paper to use for craft projects, wore hand-me-down clothes, shopped at thrift stores, hung our laundry out to dry (at least for a while), and planted a garden. We were delighted to find free stuff on the side of the road on trash day or go dumpster diving behind the local craft store to rescue stuff from the landfill. Once, when my brother and I were young, we picked up cans on the side of the highway for miles with my parents to help pay for a new Red Flyer wagon. It's probably fair to say that we did all this to save money, not to save the planet. But we also enjoyed nature as a family, camping as often as we could. 

These days I'm puzzled over the apparent disconnect between our thrifty way of life and the aversion we had to environmental concerns. The more I study Scripture, the more I see how the mandate to care for creation is actually a central part of what it means to be human! Genesis 1:26-28 outlines God's vision for human vocation, and it's directly tied to our involvement with the animals and our shared habitat: 
Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." 

One book that is helping me rethink my relationship with this planet is Sandy Richter's brief introduction to creation care entitled Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It MattersSandy is a master at making rigorous biblical exegesis accessible to laypeople. 

She knows her stuff. Her Harvard dissertation was published by de Gruyter under the title The Deuteronomistic History and the Name Theology: lešakkēn šemô šām in the Bible and the AncientNear East, which sounds intimidating before you even open the cover,
but her Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament is one of the most down to earth and accessible books you'll find on the Old Testament. I've come to expect illuminating insights expressed in powerful prose. But Sandy is more than a respected author to me. She was a member of my dissertation committee and has slaved over my writing to help me improve. Were it not for her approval, I would not be Dr. Imes. We attended the same church in Wheaton for 2 years and I am honored to call her my friend. Stewards of Eden is just like Sandy -- short, but powerful, insightful and challenging.

One of the really compelling parts of Sandy's book is the chapter on Widows and Orphans. In it, she shows how our failure to practice sustainable stewardship disproportionately affects those who are economically and socially disadvantaged. In other words, the way we treat the planet affects people, especially the poorBecause most of our food and consumer products are produced and disposed of far from us, we are shielded from the sometimes devastating effects of their production and disposal. We "export" our environmental waste by manufacturing products in countries (or counties!) with looser restrictions. The implications of these business decisions will be felt for decades to come as the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer -- their lands crippled by toxic waste. In my mind this may be one of the most persuasive sections for Evangelicals who value people over the natural world. 

The CoronaVirus pandemic is providing us with a current case in point. Sandy and I can easily work from home as professors, and while our institutions are dealing with new financial challenges, we still have homes, food, and access to health care. "Shelter in place" is more likely to feel like a "staycation" for us than a death sentence. Meanwhile, blue collar workers are in large part unable to work from home and may have very little 'cushion' with which to weather the loss of income. Lower income neighborhoods have limited access to testing and less reliable health care coverage. The Navajo Nation is a sobering example. Limited access to water (right here in North America!) and limited access to healthcare and a lower overall level of community health are contributing factors to their higher-than-average COVID19 infection and death rates. The crisis of this pandemic exposes the inequities of our society and chastens our complacency.

Sandra L. Richter, Author of Stewards of Eden
One thing I deeply appreciate about Sandy's book is that she consistently demonstrates that Sinai still matters. Sandy takes us through God's instructions for ancient Israel to show how creation care -- including trees, fields, and animals -- is an integral part of God's expectations for the covenant community. These instructions help us see what matters to God and to human flourishing. Under Sandy's tutelage, your eyes will be opened to what these laws would have meant for the ancient landowner, an invitation to a radically generous way of life dependent on God's provision. While she does not suggest that we try to implement Old Testament law wholesale, she shows how the laws should continue to inform our ethics and practice. We, too, are invited to practice radical generosity. Sandy leaves readers with a whole list of practical ways to begin right now to reverse these trends and make a positive difference.

In my next post, I interview Sandy about Stewards of Eden -- what motivated her to write it and how we can begin to respond. You won't want to miss it!

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Reading 'Reading While Black' While White

Esau McCaulley is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, an ordained Anglican priest, and a fellow board member of the Institute for Biblical Research. I'm guessing that he wrote Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP, 2020) with Black readers in mind. But this white girl found it both helpful and inspiring.

May I make a public confession? I grew up in a very monocultural environment. We were not just all white, we were almost all of Dutch descent. My family is 100% Dutch on both sides, my church was about 95% Dutch, my school K-12 was probably at least 70% Dutch and about 95% white, and my neighbors were nearly all of Northern European descent. 

I didn't like being in a white bubble. I was intrigued by other cultures. I felt called to be a missionary, to take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. I learned Spanish, read missionary biographies, collected ethnic clothing, and dreamed of life in another culture. But even so, I mainly thought about what I had to offer, not what I had to learn.

I used to think that making space at the table for people of color was a matter of equality or justice, and that's part of it. People of color are made in the image of God and they should get a chance to speak. In theory, I imagined that reading the Bible with people from other cultural backgrounds would also be enriching. But I had no idea what I was missing! 

Over the past 5 years or so I've been reading more widely and adding books to my own library and to my college's as fast as I can. I'm convinced now that when we only listen to people who look like we do, we're missing out on a ton of insight. I'm discovering a rich world of biblical reflection by African, African-American, Latinx, Asian, Asian-American, First Nations, and Islander believers.

Reading While Black fills an important gap in my library as well as in my understanding. Ironically, much of what is published by minority authors reflects the politics of the ivory tower -- critical of Scripture -- at times representing a departure from the faith tradition. (There are probably a variety of reasons for this, but I suspect that university presses are simply well ahead of faith-based publishers in seeking out authors of color.) As a result, it's much harder to find published works that represent the views of the majority of churches in the global south, churches which are by-and-large conservative.

Esau McCaulley, author of 
Reading While Black
(photo: Wheaton College)
In Reading While Black, Esau seeks to recover the resources of the Black church tradition that arises from the pulpit and the pew rather than from the ivory tower. He models a faith-filled reading of the biblical text that remains engaged with politics and justice but does not neglect the call to holy living.

Each of his chapters tackles an issue about which the Scriptures have something profound to say -- a theology of policing, the political witness of the church, the pursuit of justice, black identity, black anger, and slavery. He issues a prophetic call back to the Scriptures and to a life of faithfulness. His is not a call to "make the best of" systemic injustice, nor does he seek a violent overthrow. Esau engages tough questions with verve, urging active but peaceful resistance to injustice.

I'm grateful for his voice. I've known Esau for a while now, and I've come to trust his commitment to the authority of Scripture. I also trust him to say hard things that need to be said, but to do it with pastoral sensitivity and kindness. I'm honored to call him my friend.

Many are wondering what to do when the protests have ended. How can we keep listening? My official endorsement of the book reads:
How can the church today effectively address the racial tensions that plague our nation? Esau has convinced me that the Black Church tradition holds the key -- maintaining fidelity to the Scriptures while fully engaging in the struggle for justice. This book is an excellent starting point for those who want to listen and learn a new way forward. Esau's prophetic voice is rooted in Scripture and full of hope. Highly recommended!
Why not start here? Reading While Black was supposed to release later this fall, but due to popular demand, IVP is stepping up the release to September 1, 2020. You can pre-order a copy here. You can listen to Esau talk about the book here. You can also spread the word and leave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads as soon as it releases.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Danger of Success

It's been an incredible six months for me as a writer.
  • Bearing God's Name is on its 5th printing in under 6 months. (And while the average print size is only 1000 copies, the need for multiple printings clearly indicates that it has repeatedly exceeded the publisher's expectations.) 
  • It's received rave reviews and generated a spate of podcast interviews. 
  • This week InterVarsity Press offered me a second book contract. 
  • I've been invited to write for Cambridge University Press as well as Bloomsbury.
  • Two other essays and two book projects are in various stages of preparation for printing. 
Most importantly, I hear from grateful readers almost every day. It's been fun and really gratifying to see people respond so positively to my work. I'll be honest -- sales stats and accolades can be intoxicating! How do I stay grounded?

A couple of months ago I listened to an episode of the Disrupters podcast in which Esau McCaulley interviewed his doctoral advisor, N. T. Wright. One moment in their conversation grabbed my attention. Wright was speaking of a semester he spent in Jerusalem on Sabbatical in which he was working on his massive book Jesus and the Victory of God. He explains, "I was trying to write the introduction to the Jesus book . . . and I remember one day as I was saying my prayers, kneeling down at the prayer desk in my little room in Jerusalem and prayed 'Oh, dear Lord, am I really supposed to be doing one volume of introduction, and then a book about Jesus, and another volume about Paul?'" Although he does not regularly hear the audible voice of God, Wright received an unmistakable reply: "Well, yes, except it won't just be three."

I love this. Academics so rarely talk about the spiritual side of their work. I treasure this window into Tom Wright's prayer life as it relates to his writing. I have always seen writing as an act of worship, alongside teaching and mentoring and leading. On the front end, prayer fuels my brainstorming, proposing, and beginning. As I write, I pray all the more -- for clarity, insight, and clear communication. As the work is published, I pray that others will find benefit in it. When God answers these prayers and I begin to see fruit from it -- that is, when the work meets success -- it is essential that I continue to see it as an act of worship.

This weekend I re-read a classic: C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. It's helping me recalibrate my heart in the midst of these heady days. Lewis' warning comes by way of an imaginative story in which people from hell visit heaven and decide whether or not they want to stay. Many of the characters in his story are so committed to their illusions of a meaningful life that they literally choose to go back to hell rather than give them up to live in heaven.

Some refuse heaven because it would mean forgiving people who hurt them. Others are so preoccupied with themselves that they cannot imagine a world that does not revolve around them. One man is utterly horrified to learn that in the few years since his death his artistic genius has been wholly forgotten. He sets out to return to hell straightaway so that he can drum up more interest in his work.

How could someone who produced such great works of art or music or literature on earth be so sadly uninterested in heaven? I found the mentor's words a sober warning:
Ink and catgut and paint . . . are dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about him. For it doesn't stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower--become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations. - C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 81
Contrasting this, in Lewis' vision of heaven, people are utterly uninterested in themselves and instead deeply interested in others. They are so captivated by knowing Christ that they have let go of every accolade and ambition of their own.

The mentor tells of a fountain higher in the hills which "when you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else's: without pride and without modesty" (82). No one is distinguished. "The glory flows into everyone."

This thought gripped me. I was compelled to write Bearing God's Name because I believed with all my heart that the church at large needed to rediscover the value of the Old Testament and meet the God of Grace in its pages. But the success of this book presents the very real danger that I'd begin to enjoy the writing more than the reality to which it points, becoming fixated on sales and reviews and accolades to the extent that I lose sight of the message. If my "ownership" of this book will be lost in the the new creation, can I begin even now to let go of it? Can I view it without pride or modesty, but just as if it belongs to someone else? I must at least try.

The alternative is terrifying.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

This Life We Share: Author Interview with Maggie Wallem Rowe

Maggie Wallem Rowe, author of
This Life We Share (NavPress)
Maggie Wallem Rowe is an extraordinary woman whose writing talent has long impressed me. Maggie's zest for life and her fierce commitment to the church are an inspiration. She has spent years in Christian publishing advocating for other writers. And her knack for cheering others on spills over into every friendship. Maggie has been one of my biggest cheerleaders and dearest friends for the whole 8 years I've known her. I am absolutely delighted that her first book is due out in just over a week!

Here's my official endorsement, which you'll find inside the cover:
"Maggie has spent decades following Jesus--as a pastor's wife, coworker, mother, daughter, and friend. Now she puts pen to page to share the wisdom she's learned along the way. Maggie has a gift for seeing the world and finding meaning in ordinary days, capturing it in delightful prose. She also has the gift of insight, the ability to harness her own self-awareness for the good of others. In this book, you'll find more than good advice; I expect you'll find a new friend."
But don't just take my word for it, This Life We Share carries endorsements by Beth Moore, Sandra McCracken, Hugh Hewitt, Carol Kent, Sandra Richter, Gail MacDonald, and Lucinda Secrest McDowell, among others. In short, a whole generation of successful writers has recognized Maggie's keen insight and skill with words, and they have lined up to tell the world all about her first book!

Sadly, my own copy of Maggie's book is held up in postal quarantine in a warehouse somewhere, awaiting clearance for international shipping. While I eagerly await its arrived, I asked Maggie if she would do us the honor of a blog interview. Here's the story behind This Life We Share:

For those who don't know you, please tell us a bit about yourself. Where have you lived and what roles have you played in these places?
I grew up on a farm in rural Illinois and met my husband at Wheaton College. We moved east for seminary and then pastored two churches in New England over a 25-year period. During those years I acted in summer stock productions and community theatre, taught speech and business writing on the college level, and directed women’s ministries for a large regional faith-based organization. We were also very active in our communities and with raising five children - three who were born to us and two more “bonus kids” who joined us through foster care and spent their teenage years with us.  When most of the kids were grown and in college, we accepted a pastorate in the Chicago area and retired from that position 16 years later. While back in Illinois I worked part-time for Wheaton College and then full-time for a Christian publishing house in Public Relations. Nearly two years ago, we relocated to the mountains of western North Carolina where I’ve been writing full-time.  I can’t remember ever being bored!
When I wrote Bearing God's Name, I had in mind a retired high school shop teacher from our church in Oregon named Earl who admitted to me that he had only ever read one book cover to cover (a welding manual, if you must know). I thought if I could help someone like Earl engage with the Old Testament while keeping his attention to the end, it would be a success. Were you picturing someone in particular as you wrote this book?
Great question, Carmen. When I was asked to submit a proposal for the book that eventually became This Life We Share, the publisher specified that he was seeking a Christian living title with devotional elements that would cover “a big waterfront.” It needed to be relevant to young women in college or early in a career as well as older women in assisted living and everyone in between! It was a tall order, but with God's help I hope we’ve succeeded.
You have! You have such a knack for communicating with women of any generation. Your book is a series of 52 devotionals, designed to be read one at a time. Is there a golden thread that runs through the book--one big idea that you want your readers to grasp?
This Life We Share is organized into four major sections: The Inner Journey, The Intentional Journey, The Relational Journey, and The God of Your Journey. While it has 52 reflections with devotional elements (scripture and points of connection for discussion), it’s actually not a conventional devotional but rather a series of essays on several dozen different topics, including those as disparate as infertility, immigration, and the imposter syndrome! My prayer is that women of faith or those who are seeking will find empathy and encouragement as well as the assurance that they are not alone on our shared journey.
What has been the most joyful part of writing this book?
I have loved writing since I was a child, but honestly I never thought anyone would pay me to publish the type of candid, confessional essays I write! Speaking and teaching is a sweet spot for me, but you can only reach so many people live and in person. To have a publisher create this beautiful gift book in hardcover has been a tremendous affirmation that I never expected.
What a blessing! One thing I admire about you is the way you've pursued your dreams and your calling at an age when some are slowing down and pulling out their knitting needles. I watched you get your MA in Biblical Studies at almost 60 and now you're publishing your first book at 65. What would you say to readers who have hung onto their dreams for decades?
Don’t pay attention to your chronological age! Honestly, I have known women who were “old” at 30 when they stopped asking questions and seeking to learn from new experiences. I have always admired women in the later seasons of life who were game for trying new things.  And what a joy to connect with a publisher who believes that older women have wisdom to share!
Maggie, you had over a decade of experience as a book publicist before you wrote your first book, so you know how this industry works. How is the CoronaVirus pandemic disrupting the normal process of your book release?
Thankfully the book was printed and bound here in the US, so it is releasing on time May 5. As with every other book published this spring, however, all physical events have been postponed. I was so looking forward to launch events here in North Carolina, back in the Chicago area and also in New England. I’ll have to wait longer for those. The pandemic has also affected book delivery as major suppliers like Amazon have prioritized shipments of household goods over new titles. Thankfully my publisher, NavPress, has an alliance with Tyndale House, the world’s largest independent faith-based publisher. The warehouse is operational and the publisher has been able to offer direct fulfillment, meaning readers who order online are actually receiving their copies early!
That is good news! How can appreciative readers help your book reach more people? What are some practical things we can do that make a difference?
I’d be grateful if readers would share your blogpost with this interview and the buy link, Carmen! They can order from Amazon here or directly from the publisher here. Book proceeds go to further the worldwide ministry of The Navigators. I also welcome visits to my online home at www.MaggieRowe.com where I share “Views From the Ridge” every week on my blog.
Perhaps readers are still looking for a Mother's Day Gift. Even if you can't see your mother due to the pandemic, you can send her your love in the form of this beautiful book! 

Maggie, do you have hopes of writing another book? If so, do you have an idea of what it will be about?
Well, I’ll share a bit of a secret. I actually submitted a new book proposal just today! A publisher reached out to me recently with a specific idea after reading one of my especially quirky blogposts. We’ll see where it leads. (You heard it here first, folks!) 
Hurrah! So delighted to hear this. Thanks, Maggie, for taking the time to tell us about your book!
Thank you for this opportunity, Carmen!

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Death of Easter: A Holy Week Reflection

I write this on Maundy Thursday, as the ominous events of Good Friday begin to cast their long shadow over the controversial figure of Jesus of Nazareth, and as a global pandemic casts its long shadow over our celebration of Holy Week.

Jesus' mind was made up. He had "set his face to Jerusalem," all the while knowing what awaited him there. Neither the Romans nor the Jewish leaders had room in their power structures for his rule. Each one depended entirely on the status quo -- that delicate political balance that would line their pockets and ensure their children's futures. For Jesus to bear his message to the capital city would require either their capitulation or his death. He knew this. He knew the explosive potential of his own ministry. To keep the peace, to maintain control, they must stamp out alternative visions of reality. People's hearts were too easily swayed by hope. Jesus stirred a dangerous ferment of ideas by speaking of the kingdom of God, and by hinting that the kingdom had come. The discontent of the masses was fanned into flame by his presence. They thought only in terms of military overthrow. And how could they think otherwise? Worldly power structures were all they had ever known.

Still, he went. This fateful act was the reason for his coming. Ironically, the way to win would be to lose. Jesus' demonstration of self-giving love was the most powerful articulation possible of his vision for a new kind of kingdom. It seemed contrary to reason. It was contrary to reason, under the world's system. But Jesus knew something they didn't know. There was another path to victory. A path through death itself.
Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24 NIV)
In these unprecedented times, as the world's leaders seek to contain the spread of the CoronaVirus, the church is not allowed to gather. No Holy Week services? It would seem a defeat for the church to cancel the high point of the Christian year. Sure, we can view sermons online and sing in our living rooms. But it is not the same. We are missing the most joy-filled celebration of our faith, the essence of the Christian message. We are witnessing the untimely death of Easter. But if we've learned anything from the story of Good Friday, we should know that apparent defeats can be something else entirely. The path to victory passes through death itself.

The power of the gospel does not depend on large crowds or full-throated singing or Easter lilies or new dresses. All we need for Easter is an empty tomb. Perhaps this year, more than any other year, we will rediscover this. In the isolation of our own homes, we bury this seed. Wearily, we await the passing of the pandemic's fury. But we do so in hope, because we have an advantage. We know something Jesus' first followers didn't know. We know resurrection. We can already anticipate the joy of long-awaited handshakes and hugs. We scarcely knew how important these were until we were deprived of them. This death of community will be reborn in a deeper embrace.

More importantly, we know that Jesus' resurrection is only the beginning of what God has planned for all of creation. This broken and dying world will be brought to life. Sickness and sorrow will be reversed. Sin defeated. Death conquered. And all things made new. This is our confident hope.

Let us not mistake numbers with power. The Christian movement started under the radar with small groups of shaken believers, gathered in homes shuttered against the fury of Rome. Jesus appeared to them bodily, behind closed doors, and banished their doubts. He can do the same today. His presence and power are limitless.

May the temporary death of our Easter spring forth into a harvest of faith-filled community.

Imagine how those who don't normally attend church will watch online from the safety of their living rooms.

Imagine how the gospel is infusing our homes as we gather to pray and sing and read Scripture within these walls.

May the temporary death of our Easter remind us of our true hope--that God is making all things new.

What if the profound brokenness that characterizes our world fueled our desire for the kingdom of God to come in all its glory?

What if we grasped more deeply the ultimate reason for our joy--not that all is well, but that all will be well.

May the temporary death of our Easter be the beginning of something even better.
 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Being the Church during the COVID-19 Pandemic

You know that scene in "The Sound of Music" where the Von Trapp family sings their farewell at the Salzburg Music Festival? Everyone is emotional at the thought of how WWII is changing everything. People are leaving who should not have to leave. Everyone is uneasy.

Chapel this morning felt like that.

No, we had no armed guards at the exits, but one student after another stopped at the hand sanitizer station and entered the room lathering their hands. Greetings were awkward as we all tried to be friendly without shaking hands or hugging. Our main speaker was piped in on video, rather than risking exposure, since he'd been traveling in affected areas. All these are silent reminders of how in one week, we have all become much more aware. Aware of germs. Aware of the real possibility that meeting together is a luxury we may have to relinquish.

We're in the middle of our Global Connections Conference (GCC) at Prairie College. Our theme this year is NOW. HERE. THIS.

It's hard to imagine a more pressing world concern at this moment than COVID-19. Friends of mine at institutions across the United States are scrambling to move classes online while grieving the loss of embodied community for the rest of the semester. Conferences, classes, services, athletic competitions, concerts, lectures, class trips -- all cancelled for friends south of the border. And while Canadians are good about taking everything in stride and no one in our community is freaking out, there is a growing sense that even out here on the prairies we, too, will be affected. Soon. As I write this, our contingency team is meeting.

Singer/Songwriter Steve Bell at Prairie College's Global Connections Conference 2020

Our morning speaker was singer/songwriter Steve Bell. His stories were balm to anxious souls. His vulnerability made space for our own grief. And he closed with a song based on the words of Teresa of Avila, "Christ has no body here but ours."

Steve told the baffling story of the rapid spread of Christianity in 150 CE. This backwater sect following a crucified leader should not have captured the hearts of the Roman empire, but it did. Why? A plague. Citing the work of sociologist and historian Rodney Stark, Bell told us how early Christians embraced the news that "God so loved the world," and that this news should have sounded ridiculous. In the Roman world, "gods don't love, they are users," he said. In that day, worship was the equivalent of someone in a cage with a hungry lion desperately saying, "Nice kitty!" People didn't worship their gods out of love or in response to love, but in order to placate them. In contrast, Christians really believed that God loves people. And they knew that love is our way to God because God is love (he picked up this sentence from a sermon by David Witticum, who got it from Augustine).

So, in the face of the plague, when everyone else fled, Christians stayed. They knew they must love what God loves. They loved radically, at risk to their own lives. Steve's closing words to us felt like the farewell of the Von Trapp family. There was a palpable sense that today could be our last meeting as a community for quite some time--that everything was about to change. (Note: I have no official word on this. It just seems inevitable, given how many other schools have closed their doors.)

The risk of death appears to be much lower with the Coronavirus than it was with the plague of 150 CE. Still, the risk is real for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. We will know people who die from this. Current estimates hover around a 4-5% death rate. How can we love well in this strange new world?

We may not personally feel at risk, but there are people in our circles who are. Taking precautions protects them, too. It's not a matter of fear, but of love. If you don't like people telling you what you CAN'T do, here's a list of what we CAN do:
  • We can wash our hands more thoroughly and more often. 
  • We can minimize human-to-human contact.
  • We can regularly disinfect door handles, light switches, and hard surfaces, even if it's not in our job description.
  • We can cancel or postpone unnecessary meetings.
  • We can think creatively about how to be the church even when we can't meet in person.
  • We can think creatively about how to teach online.
  • We can refrain from stockpiling resources that everyone needs, such as toilet paper.
  • We can offer to pick up groceries for friends who aren't safe to go out.
  • We can offer to pray over the phone with those feeling anxious.
  • We can text and email to check on people we would normally encourage in person.
  • We can curtail all unnecessary travel and take a hard look at what seems necessary.
  • We can pray for stamina for health care workers and let them have the masks.
  • We can pray for wisdom for civic and community leaders who are making difficult decisions.
  • Above all, we can STAY HOME if we have a fever or cough.
A pastor friend posted on Facebook that all meetings of more than 250 people in the state of Washington were strictly prohibited, including churches, for the time being (Oregon made a similar announcement today, and so did Alberta, just a few moments ago). Someone responded angrily, implying that this is a breech of first amendment rights--the right to congregate. He seemed to feel this was a form of persecution. Please hear me: This is not religious persecution and it's not unbridled fear. Quarantine is a form of love. Experts are telling us this is the best way to stop the spread and protect the vulnerable in our communities, and that we need to act fast to have the highest success rate. So for the love of God and the love of your neighbor, stay home. 

Maybe COVID-19 will re-teach us what we have forgotten--that we are made for embodied community. As wonderful as social media is, it can never replace a handshake or a hug. And as inspiring as online sermons can be, they cannot replicate the taste of bread and wine or deep-throated song in community. This quarantine won't last forever. Hopefully it will be just long enough to help us more deeply appreciate that we were made for each other and that we can't be fully ourselves in isolation. See you on the other side!

Monday, February 17, 2020

FAQ about 'Bearing God's Name' (IVP)

For the past four months, since before Bearing God's Name was even released, I've spent a good deal of energy traveling to speak about the book and interviewing for blogs and podcasts. Now that many hundreds of copies of Bearing God's Name are in circulation, thoughtful readers from around the world have written to tell me how much the book has meant to them. (I love hearing from readers!) Some of them have also asked me questions. Maybe you've wondered these things, too:

1. Which Bible translation are you reading that says "You shall not bear the name of Yahweh your God in vain"? I've checked all over the place and I can't find that one.
I'm using my own translation from the Hebrew "original" (we don't have the very first Hebrew texts, but I'm translating from the standard Hebrew text used today, which is the product of very careful scholarly reconstruction). English translators have apparently been befuddled by Exodus 20:7 in Hebrew and concluded that it is figurative or shorthand for something related to speech. But there are no speech-related verbs or other clues in the verse that would make it about speaking God's name. And nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible is the verb "bear" used to mean speech without explicit clues in the immediate context. Instead, the verse appears in close proximity to a passage where the high priest is physically bearing or carrying names (Exodus 28:29). 
2. If all believers wear an invisible tattoo of God's name, what does that mean for actual tattoos? Are they okay for Christians or not?
In the Torah, tattoos and other permanent body markings are prohibited (Lev 19:28 and Deut 14:1-2). In that ancient context, markings like this apparently showed allegiance to the dead or to other deities. In my view, Yahweh was asking his people not to send mixed messages about their allegiance. While tattoos today do not usually carry the same connotations as in ancient times, I think the same principle can be applied. If you're considering a tattoo, ask yourself whether it competes with your claim to belong fully to God. Does it send mixed messages? 
3. Is bearing God's name similar to being made in the image of God? Is Genesis 1 really talking about the same concept?
There are similarities between these concepts, but they are not the same thing. Every human being is the image of God, but only members of the covenant community bear God's name. I talk about this briefly in Bearing God's Name, but I'm hoping to write a prequel that explores more fully what it means to be God's image.
4. How do you know that 1 Peter was written to a Gentile audience? If you're wrong about that, does the whole thing fall apart?
Not everyone agrees that Peter was writing primarily to Gentiles, but all scholars agree that he was writing to followers of Jesus. Peter clearly saw Jesus-followers as covenant members, no matter their ethnicity. Acts 10, 11, and 15 bear clear witness to Peter's theology -- he no longer sees a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. The early church leaders made a clear call that Gentiles who follow Jesus "bear God's name" (see Acts 15:14). So my argument does not rely solely on the audience of 1 Peter. There are other persuasive ways to make the case.
5. In this book do you talk about all the names of God?
No. Strictly speaking, God only has one name -- Yahweh. The rest are titles that describe aspects of his character or role. The focus of my book is on how God claims people as his own by placing his unique, personal name on them.
6. What did you mean on page 66 when you said that God repented? Are you saying God sinned?
No, God did not sin. To repent is to change your mind about something. In Exodus 32:14, the same word that is elsewhere translated "repent" is used to describe what God did in response to Moses' intercession. God had decided to destroy the rebellious Israelites, but Moses persuaded him not to on the basis of God's own character. What a mystery! 
7. How long did it take you to write this book?
I began writing in May of 2018 and finished in early September of 2018, so basically 4 months. That's fast, but I had 8 years' worth of research already completed (for my doctoral dissertation and several other research projects during seminary and grad school), so it was simply a matter of saying what I already knew.
8. Is there a study guide to go with Bearing God's Name so that a small group can read it together?
Yes! The study questions are listed in the back of the book, along with suggested Scripture passages to read and Bible Project videos to illuminate each chapter.
9. Are you going to make a video curriculum to go with the book?
Yes! I'm filming a video curriculum at the end of February 2020 to go with the book. Watch this space for information about where to find it!
10. Are you available to come speak to my church or small group?
I love speaking to church groups. Contact me about speaking for your congregation, small group, church retreat, or other special events. Because I'm a full-time professor, I have constraints on when I can travel, but I'd love to explore whether we can work something out.
If you have other questions, feel free to post them in the comments below!