Two Enacted Parables

Two enacted parables worth thinking about during Holy Week.

Last Sunday I turned from the Big Questions to focus on two clips from N. T. Wright’s visit to Cincinnati dealing with the intentional acts of Jesus during Holy Week leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection. Every act of Jesus we have recorded for us in the Gospels displays his intention and vocation. He often enacted parables as well as telling them. No where is this more apparent than in two scenes in John’s version of the events leading up to Good Friday. The first is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, humble on the colt of a donkey.

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech. 9:9-10)

The picture above by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) tells the story quite well. There is more to this painting than most on the triumphal entry.

The question is simple. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, was he acting intentionally? (The clip should start at 38:36 and the relevant portion is just over 3 minutes long.)

The short answer is yes – but Wright goes on:

When Judas Maccabeus surprisingly defeated the Syrians in 164 BC and cleansed the temple, they came into Jerusalem waving palm branches. They are cleansing the temple, this is a celebration. This is all about a new Israel. At last, if we cleanse the temple and if we have a true king, then God will come back at last and dwell properly in the temple and we’ll never have to have this kind of stupid pagan stuff coming again. Now Jesus … chose Passover, that’s a really interesting phenomenon … according to John’s gospel Jesus was to and forth from Jerusalem for all the major festivals … If Jesus is going to die for the sins of the world, which moment in the Jewish calendar might he have chosen? Day of atonement, no brainer. No he doesn’t, he chooses Passover because more fundamental is the rescue, the rescue from the Pharaoh, the rescue from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and the whole narrative of Exodus and Passover. And Jesus is deliberately reenacting that narrative through the lens of Zechariah chapter 9. Your king comes to you humble and riding on … a colt, the foal of a donkey. And the symbolism with the scriptural echoes is so typical of how lots of Jews thought and acted. But particularly how Jesus himself thought and acted. So many of his parables are full of biblical echoes which are about: this is how the kingdom of God comes, even though it’s surprising. So yes, it is deeply intentional but also kind of quizzical and paradoxical and forces people to think, and forces people into an awkward position where they have to make some decisions too. So yeah, when I was younger I just thought, so OK Jesus found a donkey and rode into Jerusalem. That’s what you do. But no, people didn’t do that … This is a very carefully staged piece of theologically motivated street theater. And it works like that. And Jesus knew exactly what buttons he was pressing and what was going to happen.

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God, A Competent Creator!

Chapter five of Daniel Harrell’s book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, begins with a joke (p. 69):

A scientist tells God that he’s figured out how to create life from the dust of the ground, just like God did in the beginning. Consequently, the scientist says, he’s shown that God is no longer a plausible hypothesis for the origin of life. Impressed, the Lord tells the scientist to do it again; he’d like to watch. So the scientist picks up a handful of dirt. But the Lord stops him right there.

“Uh-uh” God says. “Get your own dirt.”

This sets the stage for much of the chapter entitled “Believolution.” God is the creator of all – and he is a competent creator. He is involved in the natural, not only the supernatural. He is behind the process, not only the outcome. “A natural explanation is not a godless explanation because God made nature. The natural world is evidence of his mind-blowing skill.” (p. 70) Here I will highlight three points Harrell makes in this chapter.

God as Relational. Harrell goes on to give a clear explanation of one of the key points – one that I try to make fairly often when discussing the issue of creation and origins.

God’s competence does not negate intervention. God does intervene after creation, but his intervention is not to repair, but to relate. Having made his world, he intends to enjoy it not abandon it. Maybe a better word than intervention would be the world involvement. (p. 70)

When we think of God as creator, and as sovereign, we also need to step back and think about God in relationship with his creation and with his creatures. When miracles happen they always happen for a specific purpose of God in the context of this relationship.

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The Path of Evolution

HarrellThe next few chapters of Daniel Harrell’s book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, looks at the theological questions raised by the possibility of evolutionary creation.

Providence. He considers the question of providence and introduces some categories. There is ordinary providence (the everyday workings of the “natural” world), extraordinary providence (as when God employs the wind or the locusts), and supernatural providence (resurrection being a prime example). The latter is an out-breaking of God’s future in the present. None of these are outside of the nature of God – he is equally active and equally consistent with his nature in the natural, the extraordinary, and the supernatural.

Thinking Too Much. Evolutionary creation sees God’s action and providence in the “natural” process of evolutionary change. But, unless you don’t think to much (and Harrell admits that he thinks too much), it is not enough to simply say regarding creation that science tells us how and the Bible tells us who and why. This may be true, in fact, I am convinced that it is true, — but it is not enough. Harrell puts it like this:

The scientific evidence is too strong in evolution’s favor to reasonably deny its occurrence. You can refuse to believe it, but that still won’t make it untrue, any more that denying God exists proves that he doesn’t exist. The overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution has led plenty of Christians to suggest that the Bible tells the who and why of creation (the primal or final cause), leaving evolution to describe the how (the secondary or efficient cause). And that works as long as you don’t think about it too much. This is my problem. I think too much. Theology teaches me that the character of creation reflects the character of the Creator – God’s beauty and order and goodness and purposefulness. But as soon as you start thinking about what an evolving creation truly reveals – namely, cruelty and disorder and indifference and randomness – you can’t help but wonder about that faith and about the God to whom that faith points. (p. 46)

Evolution is both tortuous and torturous … or so it has been described.

Of course Harrell doesn’t leave us hanging here. In the next sections of Ch. 3 (What Happens When I Think Too Much) and in Ch. 4 (E-Harmony) he works through many of the issues involved in understanding an evolutionary creation. He wanders through a discussion of faith, randomness, purpose, heaven, love, and the image of God.

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Nature’s Witness

One of my all-time favorite books exploring the relationship between science and Christian faith was written by a pastor… a pastor in a university community, committed to taking science and faith seriously. Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith is a book I recommend highly to Christians interested in the topic – especially those with little or no scientific training. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. The book is worth a new look. As I am traveling a great deal this month, this is an excellent time to step back and revisit the book with some lightly edited and updated reposts.

First some background … Daniel Harrell is a Southerner by birth, has a bachelor’s degree from UNC, an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Boston College. He has been a minister for something like 30+ year, with over 20 years as an associate at Park Street Church Boston before moving to Minnesota. His book comes out of his experience as a pastor, his experience interacting with students and other scholars from Harvard, MIT and other schools in the Boston area, and his experience interacting with Christians wary of the idea of evolution.

In this short video Harrell reflects on the scientific method as a way of knowing about the world and about embracing science for what it can tell us, while questioning the overarching claims made by some people concerning the scope of scientific knowledge.

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Through Jesus We See God

The next segment of the conversation between Heidi Lene Maibom and N. T. Wright raises a question worth a little consideration. Still engaged with the question “What is wrong with the world?”, Prof. Maibom reacts to Wright’s suggestion that God is at work putting it right. In the discussion she gives a common description of the Christian view of God. The video embedded below starts about 56 minutes into the conversation with Prof. Maibom’s response.

I guess I simply don’t see what meaning positing some kind of … paternalistic figure much like a father who has created the world is going to give the world. I don’t see it. That doesn’t make it any more meaningful to me that somehow we’re supposed to reflect his glory or whatever the story is. That, to me, gives no more meaning than not having it. Why would God be there? Why would there be a supernatural creature that looks so suspiciously like your dad, and where’s your mom anyway, where’s she gone? There is something about that whole story that to me …, in so far as I find religious or spiritual idea attractive, I’m much more on the mystical side or the gnostic side even. You know god is within you and the devil or the bad is within you. It is not something external, it is not some kind of external existence some kind of male figure or anything like that. I find the whole question of supernatural beings kind of puzzling. I think once we start thinking harder and harder about it, we might go with, you know who Maimonides is, Guide to the Perplexed, Jewish philosopher? He would ask questions like: It says in the Bible God turns his back. What sense does that make? Does God have a back? So there’s lots of questions where it seems to me that the way we’ve conceived religion is a reflection of the limitations of our ways of thinking.

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Is There Something Wrong?

Rodin’s The Thinker (originally The Poet) was part of a large commission begun in 1880 for a doorway surround called The Gates of Hell. According to the Rodin Museum, “he represented Dante, author of the Divine Comedy which had inspired The Gates, leaning forward to observe the circles of Hell, while meditating on his work. The Thinker was therefore initially both a being with a tortured body, almost a damned soul, and a free-thinking man, determined to transcend his suffering through poetry.

This is a fitting image when pondering the big questions of life. We’ve been considering these questions in the context of a Veritas Forum conversation between N. T. Wright and Heidi Maibom at the University of Cincinnati in March 2017. Having considered worldviews, knowing, and human identity, we turn to the penultimate question posed to Wright and Maibom: What is wrong with the world?

Wright starts the discussion with an anecdote about G.K. Chesterton.

GK Chesterton, great British writer from a hundred years ago, wrote a letter to the London Times because somebody had written an article on what’s wrong with the world and the way that you signed letters to the editor of the Times in those days was you said I am yours sincerely, NT Wright or whatever, and Chesterton wrote


What is wrong with the world?

I am, yours sincerely,

GK Chesterton.”

Which is a chief and cheerful way of saying something profoundly Christian, which is when you ask the question “What’s wrong with the world?” You do not sit on a position of moral neutrality yourself and say, if there is wrong in the world it is all out but I am the one who can sit above it and judge it. We are all in this mess together. And if we are talking about what is wrong in the rest of the world we have to be prepared to have the critique bounce back at us.

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A Training Ground?

Craig Allert in Early Christian Readings of Genesis One, makes reference in passing to a comment by Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329-379 AD) regarding the purpose of creation. This is worth some consideration. We find Basil’s comment in NPNF2-08. Basil: Letters and Selected Works, The Hexæmeron 1.5. The quote below is on pp. 54-55 available online at the link.

It appears, indeed, that even before this world an order of things existed of which our mind can form an idea, but of which we can say nothing, because it is too lofty a subject for men who are but beginners and are still babes in knowledge. The birth of the world was preceded by a condition of things suitable for the exercise of supernatural powers, outstripping the limits of time, eternal and infinite. … They fill the essence of this invisible world, as Paul teaches us. “For by him were all things created that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” or virtues or hosts of angels or the dignities of archangels.

According to Basil, Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth relates the beginning of our time-bound world, but not to the beginning of all that exists. Time and creation begin together. Basil goes on:

To this world at last it was necessary to add a new world, both a school and training place where the souls of [humans] should be taught and a home for beings destined to be born and to die. Thus was created, of a nature analogous to that of this world and the animals and plants which live thereon, the succession of time, for ever pressing on and passing away and never stopping in its course. Is not this the nature of time, where the past is no more, the future does not exist, and the present escapes before being recognised? And such also is the nature of the creature which lives in time,—condemned to grow or to perish without rest and without certain stability. It is therefore fit that the bodies of animals and plants, obliged to follow a sort of current, and carried away by the motion which leads them to birth or to death, should live in the midst of surroundings whose nature is in accord with beings subject to change.

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