Q & R: Long dialogue with a New Zealander on EMC

I spoke at Laidlaw College several months back and met a bright student named Jeremy. We talked briefly that night, and I think I gave him a copy of Everything Must Change. He followed up via email, shared with permission … After the jump.


ear Brian,
It’s been a little while but we met when you were in New Zealand giving your presentation at Laidlaw College. I am the male university student who is currently studying hermeneutics in Late Antiquity and ethics; curly hair, concerned with how to make people read the Bible differently.
It may have been a throw-away line, but you mentioned your new book and said you would love to hear my opinions on the frameworks you set up in it.
So, if you’re still interested (and when you have time!), here are some points I would love to get some dialogue on:
Can you say that the Holy Spirit worked through all of church history?
My primary concern is that by presenting such a radically contemporary spin on the gospel, which focuses on a lot of issues that Christians either haven’t addressed or have been secondary issues, you are left with the somewhat odd consequence that almost all of church history has ‘missed the point.’ Sure, they have some serious flaws, but to say that Origen or Augustine or Aquinas didn’t understand the gospel is, at least for me, totally bizarre. Especially given that they were responding to very particular needs in their communities, and have played pivotal roles in the continuing existence of Christianity. I particularly enjoyed Phyllis Tickle’s points in The Great Emergence which talked about how the monastic movement, which is normally viewed as the ‘evil middle ages of lukewarm christians,’ was actually just what Christianity needed at that time.

Jeremy – this is a terribly important question, and I think there are several “short-cut” answers that aren’t helpful, just as you suggest. One is to write off large sections of church history, as if they got off track and therefore God stopped working with them. It’s pretty clear that even if “we” (whoever we are) write off some other group and consider them off the path, God continues to work with them. You might say God’s standards for blessing are lower than ours (!) or you might say (better) that God’s standards for showing mercy are higher than ours. (I like how Richard Rohr says this: God doesn’t bless us because we’re good, but because God is good.)
Another short-cut is to say that whatever problems came up in church history were minor in comparison with how important it was that the church maintained a) doctrinal purity, b) apostolic succession, c) ritual performance, or whatever. That’s easy for a comfortable and privileged person to say … but it’s not so easy for the descendants of slaves, native peoples and the formerly colonized, women, targets of religiously-sponsored racism or witch-hunts or inquisitions, etc., etc.
The only alternative I see is to say both a) terrible, terrible atrocities have happened, and terrible misconceptions as well, and b) the Holy Spirit was still working, even though severely grieved by our bad behavior. If we believe this, we won’t use “being blessed” as a kind of carte blanche, suggesting that we’re just fine, thank you. If anything, this view will always render us willing to admit we’re wrong. This openness to being corrected by the Spirit is what makes us part of a living tradition as opposed to a dead one; it’s what the Reformers meant by “ecclesia semper reformanda.”
Not sure what you meant by “a radically contemporary spin on the gospel.” My aim is to understand Jesus’ original message: the kingdom of God is at hand, which calls us to repent and believe and follow. I hope my understanding of the gospel is radically faithful to Jesus, and then I hope my applications of it are, as you say, radically contemporary. (What good is it to apply the gospel to situations that no longer exist?) Whether folks used the “kingdom of God” language or not (and whether their use of it was faithful to Jesus’ original intention or not), we’ve all been working – with more and less distraction, precision, and static – to understand and apply this message which is so central to Scripture.
I certainly agree with Phyllis – in many cases, we can see things done by our ancestors as making perfect sense in their context, and monasticism is a great example. (The antisemitic turn, of course, makes no good sense, and there are plenty of sad examples in this category too.)
Obviously, Origen or Aquinas didn’t explore what the gospel has to say to the ecological crisis that we face today. That’s the job of each generation, I’d say … to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church today, and to see how the multifaceted gospel of the kingdom addresses the mess we’re currently in. I’m certainly not saying that they didn’t understand the gospel because they didn’t focus on the ecological implications of the gospel of the kingdom – you’re right: that would be a bizarre claim.

So, while I thoroughly enjoyed the pragmatic consequences of your hermeneutical approach, what is the consequence for the rest of church history? I am also intrigued by this question given that there seems to be an implicit (or for Doug Pagitt, explicit) notion that Greek = Bad, Hebrew = Good, and that for an idea to be ‘Greek’ it somehow misses what Jesus meant which is floating around Emergent circles. While I think he raises some great points to do with this, again, at what cost? Greek thought shaped the vast majority of the early church, by language and education, and to say that this is an inherently flawed perspective seems a bold move. It also seems to just shift the anti-semitic “like those Jews” to the anti-hellenistic “like those Greeks.” More us/them mentalities… more divisions… more anachronistic demonisation…
Wait, I thought we weren’t playing that game any more?

You’re right. We can’t keep playing that game. This is a big subject in my upcoming book. (Be sure to read the footnotes in this section too!) I think we again have to do a delicate thing, much more delicate than either a) demonizing Greek and sanctifying Hebrew, or b) accepting the Greco-Romanized version of the Christian faith as the only legitimate or possible one. We have to respect the early Christian success in translating the gospel into Greco-Roman terms, which was a missiological imperative. We also have to lament some things … the failure to adequately critique some elements of Greco-Roman culture in light of the gospel, the loss of the Jewish roots of the gospel, and the anti-Semitic turn of the church, for example, not to mention the refusal (with some notable exceptions) to allow the gospel to incarnate into other cultures as it had been allowed to do with Greco-Roman culture.
Today I think we have to follow the contextualizing example of the early church – “we” meaning Christians around the world in many different cultural contexts. We have to be as wise and effective in translating the gospel into our many contexts as they were in their context. (And maybe we can even learn something from their mistakes.)
I’m sure you already have a lot of reading to do, but if you ever get a chance to add a book to a research project, let me recommend the African theologian (lately passed away) Kwame Bediako. His book “Theology and Identity” grapples with exactly this issue – brilliantly, in my opinion.

Surely what we should be trying to do is encourage an environment of contextualization. Look at the issues in society, and then look at how we can work towards a solution not because Jesus said “Save the rainforests,” but because it’s a good thing to do, and what is good is from God.

I’m glad you feel this way, Jeremy. But you’d be surprised how many “Bible-believing Christians” here in America act as if saving the rainforests were an act of infidelity!

My concern is that we are in a time when we want Jesus to address a lot of issues that would have been inconceivable to him (genetic engineering, climate change, animal rights, etc.), and that we can’t proof text. But I don’t see this as a problem. Unless you encourage that kind of methodology, which is why I was intrigued to see you lean so heavily on scriptural passages and ‘what Jesus meant was…’. My understanding of trajectory hermeneutics/narrative approaches is that you gain the [time-bound] ethic of a passage (e.g. Isaiah 58) and then work with that in your own context.

Be assured, I actually agree with you, and I pretty studiously avoid the kind of proof-texting you’re critiquing here. The night of the lecture, I may have referred to Jesus’ words about God caring for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field … but I did so trying to show that Jesus’ view of God was of a God who cared for creation. That gives us a good reason to say “saving rainforests is the kind of thing that kind of God would have us do.”
In EMC, I spent a lot of time showing how Scripture frames our predicament in a different way that many of us were taught. I can’t imagine doing this without referring to Scripture.

It looked as if you were getting into exigetical argument at times though, which reflects a more Evangelical hermeneutic. Was this simply a matter of “Well if they want scriptures, I’ll give them scriptures,” or is there something going on here which I missed?

Are you referring to the book, or to the lecture? My guess is that at the lecture I was trying to answer a question in a way that would make sense to the person who asked it. You might say I was contextualizing my response to the assumptions and methodology of the person asking it – at least, as I was able to discern in a split second (hopefully with the Holy Spirit’s guidance!).
In the book, my hermenetuic is somewhat Evangelical in the sense that I work from the texts as given. (I don’t subject them to a Jesus-Seminar-style critique, for example.) But I don’t think I do the kind of proof-texting that neither you nor I are fond of!

What about Jewish Christians?
One of the most valuable insights I have gained from reading scholars like Paula Fredriksen is that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were facing very different problems and were treated very differently in the Roman Empire. Throughout your book (admitedly, mostly in the footnotes… *geeking it out*) there were comments to which I thought “Wait, but that didn’t apply for Christians who were of Jewish descent.” For example, the fact that people of Jewish descent were consistently exempt from the Imperial Cult. I’m sure you’re well familiar with the different political and social practices going on back in the day, so I’ll just skip ahead to my conclusion – Different Christians had different political concerns, but this seemed a secondary issue to them. The followers of Jesus weren’t crucified in the vast majority of cases, and it seems plausible that the concern of the Roman government wasn’t that their authority was being challenged, but that the altars were being abandoned and this was causing all the trouble in the Empire as the gods were angry (this becomes a particularly compelling case in the messy 3rd century CE).
I am aware that this is getting into rocky ground and these are issues that scholars will argue out. So what practical consequences for the church? My concern is that you stressed the anti-institutional approach, relying heavily on Crossan, so much that you risk painting a picture of the early church which reflects your agenda more than it does history. Of course, we all do this to some extent. Perhaps though, we could play the contextualisation card once again.

As you’re well aware, Jeremy, there are many, many layers to all this. One of the assumptions we tend to hold, which I don’t think is paralleled in the cultures of the early centuries of the church, is that there are two separate categories – one for politics and institutions and empires, and another for temple and worship and God. My hunch is that the two categories were far more integrated in our forbears’ minds, and there were good reasons for that.
If by “anti-institutional” you mean “anti-imperial,” I do believe there is a lot more anti-imperialism going on in the New Testament (and the Bible as a whole) than most people realize. I was probably trying to emphasize what most people still aren’t aware of. But be assured, I don’t want to be reductionistic in an anti-imperial reading in a mirror image of others who are reductionistic in an atonement-oriented reading, or an anti-evolutionary reading, or whatever. I want to be aware of political dimensions of the text, but not narrowly so as to miss the mystical dimensions of the text, for example, or the communal dimensions, or the spiritual formation dimensions. My goal – and it sounds like you share this goal – is to see all these dimensions, in all their dynamic particularity, and to also try to see them in an integrated way. Jesus’ metaphor of “kingdom of God” has helped me in this integrative process more than anything else … but perhaps it is less helpful to you, and it only sounds anti-imperial. Thankfully, the Bible has all kinds of handholds and portals to help us in all our diverse journeys.

Different time, same virtues:
Instead of saying, “The Roman government is like the oppressive institutions of today, and Jesus was against that” (which is contentious), why not say “Jesus was against injustice, and the letters of the early church make it clear that it’s not ok to sit around when you see an opportunity to do good and not do it” (which isn’t contentious). Surely the fact that we are in democratic states is an important consideration which separates us from the early church – if the early church wanted radical change at a government level, they didn’t really have many options other than a coup. We have voting powers. And the ability to get into government/legislation/influential corporate bodies. It may be our duty in this day and age to use our political powers to change our societies, in ways which the early church couldn’t have ever dreamed of.
Of course, at this point I would throw the ball to someone like Martha Nussbaum or my lecturer Rosalind Hursthouse to give an account of how Virtue Ethics could inform our political system (and I’m pretty sure both Jesus and Paul were really keen on the virtues). And notice here how we could move from a “What did Jesus mean when he said this?” approach, which is petty and argues over details, to a “What was Jesus trying to make us see? How, then, am I to live?”, which is very general yes, but allows us to have an overarching hermeneutic that insists on staying relevant in each particular instance.

Jeremy – not sure why you would think I differ from you. I really like what you’re saying here. I agree with you – I think virtue ethics has enormous potential for us. And I don’t want to be needlessly contentious. If you felt at the lecture I was emphasizing institutional evil, that’s because – again – I think most folks in that audience would be far more familiar with an individualized approach to evil and sin, and needed to consider the institutional dimensions of evil as well.

That was long. I’m sorry. We’re on the same team, I assure you.
After all that, please be encouraged that reading your book is like breathing fresh air. Obviously, given my interests, my main concern is your methodology and the consequences both for historical readings and future contexts. In saying that, I thought your sociological analyses were brilliant and the divisions of the main issues into the 3 sections with a framing story was very effective. Plus, the emerging church in general just makes me happy and gives me hope that Christianity can still bring a lot of light to the world.

Thanks, Jeremy. We are on the same team. Glad you enjoyed EMC. You’ll find a lot more about hermeneutics in my upcoming book. It’s structured around ten questions. One of them is about the Bible: how we read it, how it exercises authority, etc., but all ten questions have a lot of hermeneutical dimensions to them. It will be available in the US and UK in February – hope it will be available shortly thereafter in NZ.

Thank you for your time in reading this, and for all your work. Any comments have you time to make would be much appreciated.
Seriously, I’m glad you’re alive and doing what you’re doing.
Thanks again,
Jeremy Reid

Thank you, Jeremy. We really need gifted emerging scholars like yourself. By the way, have you heard about this new PhD scholarship in theology in Norway? You can find info on LeRon Schults’ blog here. As I told you that night, I believe people called to scholarship should get the very best education they can – not just indoctrination, but real education. Anyone who works with LeRon would get that kind of real education. Keep me informed of your plans as they unfold.