The Renewal of All Things

14th Century Tapestry John seeing the New JerusalemThe book of Revelation also known as the Apocalypse of John can be rather hard to understand. It is, after all, apocalyptic literature – a form a bit ‘interesting’ in the Old Testament prophets and every bit as ‘interesting’ here. I don’t usually worry too much about the book, or try too hard to make sense of it. This isn’t to say it should be ignored or bypassed (I’ve listened to it several times through over the last couple of years along with the rest of the Bible) – just to say that the appropriate interpretation seems somewhat obscure for the most part. But it is a book worth some consideration, so I turned with interest to the chapter in Let Creation Rejoice by Jonathan Moo and Robert White where they look at John’s vision.

The view that shapes their interpretation is that the vision of John describes a redemption and renewal of creation rather than a destruction of all things. This vision starts with the song of praise to the Lion of Judah, the root of David, the Lamb who was slain and is able to open the scroll.

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.” (5:9-10)

Here as elsewhere in John’s vision, Christ’s atonement does not serve to open “escape hatches” for the redeemed to ascend to heaven; rather Christ ransoms for God a people, a “priestly kingdom,” who will reign on earth. … In the light of the death, life, resurrection, and future return of the incarnate Christ, readers of John’s Apocalypse are enabled to see this world through new eyes and to go about the work to which God calls us: to be here, As Wendell Berry’s poem at the head of this chapter suggests,

As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not. (p. 147)

The book of Revelation is a book of hope, and John’s vision with its upheaval, chaos, and judgment is “the inevitable consequences of the encounter between God’s righteousness and the forces of evil and injustice.” The victory has been won, but we await the final restoration.

Babylon the Great. Chapter 17-19 of the Apocalypse deals with the fall of Babylon the Great – that is Rome. Rome was the empire, it was the power of this world for of John and his original audience. The references within the book are many and they wouldn’t be missed by the ancient reader. It was Rome who destroyed the temple leading to the death of thousands. It was the Roman emperor who was venerated and worshiped as a god. It was Domitian who referred to himself as “our Lord and God.” The prostitute Babylon the Great of chapter 17 rides a beast with seven heads … which are seven hills. Rome was built on seven hills … the connection isn’t explicit, but it isn’t actually hidden either.

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The World is Sacred Space

Lake and SkyIn his new book Seriously Dangerous Religion, Iain Provan begins by sketching the vision of the world and of creation that the authors of Genesis portray. This vision is contrasted with that of other religious views (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), with the philosophy and religion of the Greeks, and with the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) religions. Today I will focus on the main points he draws about Genesis.

1. Genesis portrays a world with a beginning. The world is not eternal.

2. The world was created by a person, that is God is spoken of in personal terms.

These are important points that set the image portrayed by Genesis apart from most other views of the world.

It proposes that a personal God created the heavens and the earth. This is only the first of many ways in which, to echo Blaise Pascal’s words in his Mémorial, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of whom Genesis speaks is not the god of the philosophers (insofar as the term “god” is even an appropriate term for the “One”that these philosophers envisage). (p. 26)

3. Creation is ordered. “The book of Genesis explains [this order] in terms of a personal creation; the Creator has produced order.” (p. 27) In Genesis 1 days one to three give shape to the formless and void creation as the darkness is contained, a space for life is created, and the seas are tamed, while days four to six fill the created and shaped space. “The Creator makes things the way they are, providing both the habitations and the inhabitants that make up our world.” (p. 28) Continue reading

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The Day of the Lord Will Come

Earth Moon Small2 Peter 3 is a well known passage concerning the Day of the Lord. A vision of the judgment to come and the effect this judgment will have on creation. Scoffers doubt that the end will come, and focus on their own evil desires. 2 Peter warns the reader…

But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (3: 5-7, 10-13, NIV)

On the surface this passage is hard to reconcile the vision of Paul, that all creation is waiting in eager expectation for the day when it will be liberated and brought into freedom and glory.

Jonathan Moo and Robert White, Let Creation Rejoice, dig into this passage. Why should creation rejoice given the end portrayed by Peter?

First we need to consider the form and context of the text. Like Paul, the author of 2 Peter is borrowing from the Old Testament, from the Prophets, and especially from the apocalyptic passages (think Daniel and Ezekiel as well as other passages scattered throughout the prophets) that “employ dramatic imagery to portray the salvation and judgment of God.” This isn’t a prediction that we should read like a historical narrative.

Like much of biblical prophecy 2 Peter 3 describes events that transcend ordinary human experience, and only metaphor, poetry, and the language of apocalypse are adequate for the task. … Peter simply is not concerned with instructing us about the physical structure of the universe; his dramatic portrayal of the coming of God to his creation is meant instead to transform the way we live and act in the world today. (p. 119)

Certainly 2 Peter intends to depict a real future judgment, but the language is the language of apocalypse. Moo offers two slightly different approaches to this passage, possibilities arising from the ambiguity of the language, but both with the same end result.

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Seriously Dangerous Religion

100_4054 dsThere are a number of stories people tell to shape their life and purpose. These range from stories of secular materialism, socialism, capitalism, stories of Western superiority, American superiority, Chinese superiority, humanism and progress, patriarchy, feminism, Christian stories including creation, fall, redemption and new creation and more. The way that these stories are told, mixed, and embraced helps to shape who and what we are.

Over the last several years I have heard a number of different pastors and Christian leaders emphasize the importance of story in the preaching of the gospel. This carries over into all aspects of Christian life including the view the church takes toward the questions of science and Christian faith – be it the age of the earth, evolution, or the reality of global warming. Facts alone are not enough, we need to be able to tell the story. And of course we want our story – whatever it is – to be framed by the biblical story including both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But if we as Christians are seriously focused on being the people of God it has to take the Old Testament seriously on its own terms, not restructured into the story we expect it to tell.

Seriously_Dangerous_ReligionThis leads me to Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters. Iain Provan is the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College in Vancouver British Columbia. He is an Old Testament scholar who has written commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, 1 and 2 Kings, and Lamentations. He is also the author of A Biblical History of Israel with V. Philips Long and Tremper Longman III.

Provan begins his book with a discussion of mice, men and Hobbits – an intriguing chapter title. Douglas Adams’ series The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy provides an overarching story line of mice and men with no ultimate sense. This is an entertaining but rather bizarre series of books I enjoyed as a graduate student. In these books both the answer and the question to life, the universe and everything cannot be known simultaneously.

This means (among other things) that there exists in this “world” no coherent basis for moral action – no foundation upon which to build a moral vision. The novel’s characters are lost in space. (p. 2)

This can be contrast with the overarching storyline in The Lord of the Rings, in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and other classic (and not so classic) tales. In these stories there is the conviction of a larger story that provides coherence and purpose, whether known at the time or not. Dante and Tolkien reflect deep Christian convictions and this plays out in how they shape their stories. Other stories are possibly from non-Christian perspectives, not all of them as unpredictable and ultimately meaningless as the fiction of Douglas Adams. These larger stories are important and we seek them, consciously or unconsciously.

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Down to Earth Hope

Iron_hydroxide_precipitate_in_streamRomans 8:18-22 (NIV)

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

The next chapter in Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis by Jonathan Moo and Robert White turns to Paul’s description of creation and especially to Romans 8 – creation groans as in the pains of childbirth. They connect this passage to Genesis 3, but even more significantly to the prophets, especially Isaiah 24-27. Moo has an article in New Testament Studies on this connection, Romans 8.19–22 and Isaiah’s Cosmic Covenant. There are also echoes of connection to Hosea, and to Jeremiah in Romans 8 although Moo and White don’t connect the passage to Jeremiah in this chapter of their book.

In Romans 8 Paul assumes that his audience is aware of the broader biblical story including the first chapters of Genesis. He refers to Adam in Romans 5 and in a number of other letters, so it isn’t unreasonable to assume that Paul is alluding to the curse of Genesis 3 in Romans 8, at least in part. Most commentators on the passage seem to stop here and ignore the other biblical contexts for Paul’s statements leaving us with a rather flat (and I think largely wrong) interpretation. Moo and White move beyond this to the far richer description of an ongoing curse depicted by the Prophets. These passages were also part of the broader biblical story Paul assumed as he wrote the letter to the Romans.

Paul, however, like the Old Testament prophets before him, goes further in describing how creation’s subjection to now-fallen humanity means that the entire creation is subjected to ongoing frustration, finding itself in “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21), enslaved to ruin. (p. 105)

We tend to worry about using anthropomorphic language to refer to creation – for theological and/or scientific reasons.

Paul has no such qualms. He is able to draw on a rich biblical tradition of letting nonhuman creation have its own voice, a voice that is heard praising God throughout the Psalms, bearing witness to the covenant between God and his people in the Prophets and, as here in Romans 8, crying out – groaning even – when creation suffers the results of humankind’s corruption.

Paul is in fact echoing the language of Isaiah 24-27, a passage that he uses in his extended defense of the hope of resurrection in an earlier letter, in 1 Corinthians 15. He alludes to the same passage again in his description of life after death in 2 Corinthians 5:4. Just as Paul does in Romans 8, Isaiah 24-27 emphasizes both the present devastating effects of human sinfulness for a mourning earth and also the cosmic extent of the judgment and new creation to come. (p. 105)

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Dealing With Darwin

LivingstoneOften times we forget the importance of place and time on the way ideas are received and processed. David Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast makes it his business to study the relationship between the way ideas are received and developed as a function of place. One of the (many) highlights of the Evolution and Christian Faith Workshop this summer was the plenary lecture Livingstone gave based on a chapter in his recent book Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution. This is a readable academic book – a scholarly study of the importance of location and local context on the way evolution was received, embraced, or rejected.

“Thoughts routinely travel the world in textual form” but the way in which they are received depends upon the situated location and context of the reader.

The coming together of texts and readers, then, is a moment of creativity in which meaning is made and remade. For the encounter with words on paper is not to be thought of as a passive “consumption” of ideas; it is rather a positioned rendezvous, a situated dialogue, a sited engagement between text and reader. Acts of reading always involve located hermeneutics because readers are always part of what Stanley Fish calls “interpretive communities” sharing some foundational assumptions and exegetical strategies. (p. 5)

Public and private speech also have conventions situated in place. Thoughts and ideas are transmitted in oral as well as written form. Livingstone quotes Theodore Zeldin on the art of conversation with the all important observation that conversation doesn’t just transmit information, it also transforms human minds … “talk is not simply about transfer; it’s about transmutation.” But speech is not free, it is shaped by place in many different ways.

The intimately reciprocal connections between speech and space have far-reaching consequences. Speech spaces shape what can and cannot be said in particular venues, how things are said, and how they are heard. In different arenas there are protocols for speech management; there are subjects that are trendy and subjects that are taboo. (p. 6-7)

Oxford Natural History MuseumThe famous debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is a case in point. At the time both Huxley and Wilberforce were viewed by some discourteous, but the confrontation and the reception it received was defined by the space in which it happened and the local conventions for civil speech. The image to the right is of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where the debate occurred (although not in this space … rather in a space now occupied by a large number of storage cabinets).

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The Gospel and Global Warming

Lake and SkyJonathan Moo and Robert White in Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis turn from the evidence for environmental crisis and global warming to a Christian response. There are plenty of secular people who think that the Christian response (at least the evangelical response) is consumption and destruction. Others simply think we have our heads in the sand assuming that God will prevent any real damage of his good creation. As Moo and White point out, there is plenty evidence that some views of creation and the future taught by Christians fall into these categories.

Moo and White don’t bring it up, but I will to put things into perspective. Not too long ago a group put forth what they termed an evangelical declaration on global warming that, in essence, denied on scientific and theological grounds that it is possible for humans to cause significant damage to the earth’s climate. I posted on it once when it was relatively new: Theology, Science, and Global Warming. Whatever one might think of some of their provisions, or of the strength of the evidence for global warming the first affirmation and the first denial represent both bad science and bad theology.

In another example, a well known pastor, respected by many, has a sermon readily available on the internet (YouTube and other places) that gives the view that the earth is 6000 years old and everything here is for our use as we subdue the earth, that the future is entirely in God’s hands. This pastor is consistent in his view, but the “science” he uses to dismiss global warming and ecological crisis is appalling – it isn’t fair to the science at all, but is simply a collection of rhetorical tricks. We have a black-eye in the view of many because of valid dismay at some of the things that Christians have, in the name of Christ and his church, said. (I don’t care nearly as much what they say in their own name and understanding.)

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