Friday, July 30, 2010

The Welcome Wagon

I enjoy an eclectic array of music, particularly of the independent, Christian variety. One of my favorite bands is The Welcome Wagon, which is a husband-wife duo who happen to be church planters in New York City and close friends of Sufjan Stevens. They've created a wonderful album of folksy spirituals that I would love to have in the regular rotation of the worship at my church. Check out the live cut of "But For You Who Fear My Name" in the video.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pool Party!

So to beat the heat, I decided to splurge and buy a pool. I put it right out in my front yard so all my neighbors would be jealous. Yep, spent a whole $14.95 on it, too. As you can see from the video, the kids love it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Why I Am Not A Theistic Evolutionist

The issue of the origins of the world have come up a lot recently, and I find myself in an interesting space where I am neither a 6-day creationist nor a theistic evolutionist. I believe that God created the universe and everything in it, but the method he used to create is probably to wonderful for me to comprehend. But I did want to say a few words about why I do not believe in the theory of evolution.

The first reason is because science is not an exact science. That is to say, as soon as we developed a Scientific Establishment, we developed reasons to maintain the status quo of that Establishment. Science, particularly the science of origins, is as open to bias and politics as any other institution. More to the point, evolution is the preconception of modern science. It is the starting point, the foundation. It won’t be questioned. Which is fine, as far as it goes. It just means that I won’t take science all that seriously, and I certainly won’t intimately tie it to my theology.

The second reason I don’t believe in evolution is a philosophical one. The ancients believed in a three-partite reality: Divinity, Humanity, and Nature. Each element was continuous with the other, meaning the divine realm could be manipulated through the natural realm. The Hebrews came along and said that Nature doesn’t belong in that mix because it exists to serve the needs of Humanity and reflect the glory of Divinity, and that those two were the only two parts of reality. Moreover, there is a distinct separation between God and his creation, of which Humanity serves as vice-regent. So we have this:

Ancient pagans: Divinity + Humanity + Nature = Reality.
Ancient Hebrews: Divinity + Humanity = Reality.

But with the advent of evolutionary science, Divinity has been removed from the equation, and Humanity has been subsumed back into Nature. So we have this:

Evolutionary Science: Nature = Reality.

Because Humanity has emerged from Nature, it can never truly transcend Nature. We are always an accidental, and at times undesirable, part of it. Try as they might, the theological evolutionists cannot insert God into a process that neither needs him nor wants him. Nor can they add the same value to Humanity that Genesis 1 gives us, because humans can be nothing more than an accidental carbon-based byproduct of Chance, and nothing less than the scourge of the planet. Thus, if Darwin’s The Origin of Species is the Genesis of evolutionary science, then An Inconvenient Truth is its Book of Revelation.

I simply do not accept the premise of the evolutionary equation. Reality is more than Nature—much, much more. Nature is less than reality—much, much less. God is transcendent. Humanity is created in his image. I agree with the ancient Hebrews: Divinity + Humanity = Reality.

Book Review: The Bible Among the Myths

What’s so unique about the Bible? After all, there are plenty of other ancient texts that claim to describe the creation of the world, the role that humans play in it, and the nature of the gods. And we know, of course, that these writings are nothing more than myths. Isn’t the Bible just like these ancient myths—ahistorical religious fiction, albeit with a monotheistic rather than polytheistic bent? Just how similar or different is the Bible to its ancient counterparts? And, the question that really lies behind it all, can we trust that the Bible is telling us the truth about the world?

These are the questions that John Oswalt, research professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary, sets out to answer in his book, The Bible Among the Myths. More specifically, Oswalt is dealing only with the Old Testament and its counterparts from the ancient Near East, including Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite cultures. The book itself is divided into two parts: Part one, the more illuminating and thought-provoking half, is called “The Bible and Myth”, and part two is called “The Bible and History”.

Oswalt claims that there has been a shift in scholarly opinion from understanding the Bible historically, in contrast to the texts of Israel’s neighbors, to viewing it as myth, quite akin to those texts. This has happened, he says, because scholars have come to view the similarities between the Bible and, for example, the Enuma Elish as essential and the differences as accidental. (13) In other words, the Bible is best defined by the ways in which it is the same as other ancient texts, not by the ways in which it is different.

That, Oswalt argues, is ridiculous. While the Bible may be similar to other ancient texts in some ways (primarily in matters of convention, and mostly superficial), it presents a fundamentally new way of looking at the world, and therefore it cannot fit into the category of myth.

Myth, and particularly the myths of the ancient cultures surrounding Israel, is centrally characterized by Continuity. “Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts that all things are continuous with each other. Thus I am one with the tree, not merely symbolically or spiritually, but actually. …This means that the divine is materially as well as spiritually identical with the psycho-socio-physical universe that we know.” (43) In the mythology that undergirds the religion (and therefore the entire life) of ancient cultures, there is no distinction between humanity, the natural world, and the divine realm. Nor is there a distinction between symbol and reality: “The symbol is the reality. …All things that exist are physically and spiritually part of one another.” (49)

The implications of this way of looking at the world are: 1) Reality only relates to the present; 2) Actualization of timeless reality; 3) Blurring of source and manifestation; 4) Importance of nature symbolism; 5) Significance of magic; 6) Obsession with fertility and potency; and 7) Denial of boundaries. (50-56) The most interesting way in which these implications manifest themselves (and what was likely the most tempting aspect of Canaanite religion to Israel) is in ritual prostitution. “Plant and animal life are the result of divine copulation, for all things in this world that we know have their origins in sexual behavior. Therefore, the thing to do [to make it rain] is to get the god [of heaven] and goddess [of earth] to have sexual relations. …How do we do that? …We do it for them through ritual enactment. As the worshiper and the priestess have sex together under the appropriate ritual circumstances, the god and goddess do so as well and the rhythms of nature are maintained.” (51) Because everything is continuous, the sexual act committed at the temple is the sexual act committed between the god of heaven and the goddess of the earth. Clearly, this is not the biblical worldview.

What makes the Bible different from these myths? Oswalt claims that the Bible is consistently characterized by the following concepts: 1) Monotheism; 2) Iconoclasm; 3) First principle is Spirit; 4) Absence of conflict in the creation process; 5) A high view of humanity; 6) The reliability of God; 7) God is supra-sexual; 8) Sex is desacralized; 9) Prohibition of magic; 10) Ethical obedience as a religious response; and 11) The importance of human-historical activity. (64-80) Each of these is consistently prescribed in the Bible as the standard of Israelite experience, and each of them lie in stark contrast to the prescriptions of myth. In other words, the religion of the Bible could not be any more different from the religions of the myths.

The reason for this is that the Bible does not present a worldview of Continuity, but rather of Transcendence. “For the Bible, God is not the cosmos, and the cosmos is not God. God is radically other than his creation. This thought undergirds everything the Bible says about reality.” (81) God is not a part of creation, nor are there any other gods alongside him in some mythical pantheon. Therefore, he cannot be manipulated or coerced to act through any ritual practice, and specifically through ritual prostitution.

Continuity is the starting point of myth, but Transcendence is the foundation of Biblical thought. While the Bible may share some superficial similarities with the myths, it is distinctive in that it offers a completely new way of looking at the world and relating to its creator.

The Bible Among the Myths is an excellent resource for anyone interested in exploring ancient literature and how the Old Testament relates to the world in which it was written. Oswalt offers a clear, thoughtful picture of how the Bible is distinct from the myths of Israel’s neighbors. While this book is certainly useful for exegesis and biblical studies, I also think it has great value in the arena of apologetics because it shows how remarkable the Scriptures truly are.

Questions: How do you see the worldview of Continuity making a comeback today? Is there any way that the church has mixed Continuity into its teachings or practices? What are the implications of Transcendence, specifically in relation to the Incarnation?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How to Get Out of Jury Duty While Still Reporting for Jury Duty

For the past two weeks I've had to come down to the Franklin County Court of Appeals to fulfill my civic responsibility of jury duty. A lot of people hate jury duty and want to get out of it, but I've actually found a way to report for jury duty and still manage to avoid of any actual jury service. Here are my tips:

  • Shifty Eyes: When the judge or lawyers are asking you questions to determine if they want to keep you on the jury, look around at everything in the room without moving your head. Shifty eyes are a surefire way of freaking people out.
  • Strong, Unsubstantiated Opinions: When asked a question, make sweeping generalizations and adamantly support your views with illogical and irrational arguments. Remember, people's livelihoods are in your hands, and you don't want that kind of responsibility!
  • Always Answer with a Question: If that judge is going to put you on the hot seat, why not return the favor? If he asks you, "Juror #11, have you ever been convicted of a felony", simply respond, "Maybe. Have you?" You will be immediately dismissed from the case.
  • Speak with Little or No Vocal Inflection: Remember Will Ferrel's character from SNL who had voice immodulation? Yep. That'll work.
  • Assume You Have the Right to Always Go to the Bathroom: These people stand up for you when you walk in the room. You have the right to get up and leave the courtroom for any reason whenever you want. If the judge tells you to sit down you look him straight in the eyes and say, "Judge, the next time I sit down it's gonna get real nasty. Now I can either do that here or I can do that where civilized folks do. Your decision."
  • Reenact Famous Courtroom Scenes: "You can't handle the truth!" Lawyers love this.

I'm not saying that this is what I've done to get out of jury duty while still reporting to jury duty, I'm just saying this will work. And if you don't want to participate in jury duty...what's wrong with you? It's your civic duty, and people's lives are in your hands. It's an honor to live in a country that executes justice through trial by jury, so don't take it for granted. You never know when you might need an honest, thoughtful, serious jury someday.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rejoice in the Lord Always

I'm grumpy in the morning. Most nights Breena and I wake up several times to either comfort the kids, give Zeke a bottle, or change his diaper. So, naturally, when the kids wake up at 6:00 am chipper and ready to go, we're not. And I'm especially grumpy when I'm tired.

This morning I had to apologize to the kids for being mean. Sometimes I'm a bigger baby than they are. Eisley and Cyrus are both very gracious and forgave me, then wanted to give me multiple hugs and kisses. What a glorious picture of grace!

I opened up the Bible and read a single verse from Philippians to them: "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, Rejoice!" I explained to the kids that rejoice means that we're happy about Jesus, and we say, "Praise the Lord!" We practiced that several times while simultaneously throwing our arms in the air.

When Cyrus gets angry he says, "My eyebrows are down", and he furrows his little brow. Eyebrows down, apparently, is the angry face. But I told them that rejoicing is when our eyebrows are up, and Cyrus said, "My eyebrows are way, way up", while lifting his eyebrows almost to his hairline.

For me, this is one of those verses that is easy to understand but very hard to do. I'm not naturally a glad person. When my kids wake me up at 6:00 am my first thought isn't, "Praise the Lord!" But maybe that just means I take them for granted. After all, isn't it praiseworthy that they survived the night? And that nobody snuck into our house and stole them away?

Rejoicing is a matter of perspective, and I can see much clearer when my eyebrows are way, way up.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

You Can't Manipulate God

One of the most important lessons we can learn in this life is that God can’t be manipulated. There is no ritual act we can perform that will change God’s mind. We can’t compel him to act by our good deeds. There is no magical incantation that will stir him up and cause him to act in our favor. So why do we always try to pull this kind of crap with God?

I just finished reading a great book by John Oswalt called The Bible Among the Myths. (Book Review coming on Friday.) The core thought of the book is that the Bible is radically different from the other sacred texts of the ancient world in that it presents a completely new way of seeing the world.

All of ancient Israel’s neighbors (and many cultures today) viewed the world as an extension of a greater, unseen reality—the realm of the gods. The two were connected the way that you are connected to your shadow (with this world being the shadow). John Oswalt calls this idea Continuity. The physical world and the spiritual world are continuous.

This means that what you do in this world is also being done in the spiritual world. For example, the ancients understood the earth and the sky (and the sun and the moon and the clouds) to be gods. In order for crops to grow, it had to rain, which was the act of the earth and the sky having sex. So if you wanted it to rain so that your crops would grow, you would have sex with a prostitute at the shrine of your god. Your sex act in the physical realm meant that the gods were having sex in the spiritual realm. In other words, the gods could be manipulated.

But the Hebrews did not believe this (or at least their scriptures did not teach it). They believed that there was only one God and that this God was not continuous with the physical world in any way. He was utterly separate from it. The word for this is Transcendence.

Because this God was transcendent, he could not be manipulated. Whatever ritual act you might perform would have no corollary in the spiritual world. God is completely other than the world, and therefore every divine action is an act of grace. This means that you are not in control.

But the good news is that this God is fundamentally characterized by love, truth, faithfulness, and integrity. He deeply, deeply loves you. He has our ultimate good in mind, always. He is a God who is safe to surrender to, one to whom you can hand over control. He is a God who desires relationship—he wants to be known by you, and for you to fully and willingly reveal your heart and mind to him. Unlike the gods of the ancients, he can’t be manipulated, but he can be loved.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Function of Humanity

One of the things that gets lost in the origins debate is the role assigned to humans in Genesis One. We are:

  • Like the animals, commanded to be fruitful and multiply;
  • Given the charge of subduing and ruling creation;
  • Created male and female;
  • Created in the image of God.

The most important of the four is that we are created in the image of God. “All of the rest of creation functions in relationship to humankind, and humankind serves the rest of creation as God’s vice regent.” (Walton, 68) In other words, we represent God to creation, ruling it and caring for it as he would. This, of course, has many ecological implications, but I’d like to stick with the theological implications for now.

Humans are not assigned such a high place in the creation stories of Israel’s neighbors. In fact, the purpose of humanity was to serve as the slaves of the gods. We are here to see to it that all of the gods’ needs are taken care of. Creation has been made in order to serve the needs and pleasures of the gods, and humans are often a most despicable byproduct of some great cosmic battle, being made from the blood of some horrible chaos monster. “In the rest of the ancient world creation was set up to serve the gods, a theocentric view, in Genesis, creation is not set up for the benefit of God but for the benefit of humanity—an anthropocentric view.” (69)

If creation is anthropocentric, it is because God has no need of creation. That is to say, he is distinct from creation. All the other ancient cultures viewed creation as an extension of a greater, unseen, and truer reality—the realm of the gods. (see also, The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt) Therefore, what happens on earth is happening in the truer, invisible reality. But the genius of Genesis One is that it establishes the transcendence of God—the teaching that he is distinct and above creation. He has created this world not for himself, but for us.

Rather than being an inferior copy of a greater, unseen reality, God elevates the state of creation by making it his temple! On the seventh day he moves into his temple because, as Walton points out, divine rest always takes place in a temple. Now, every temple has an image of the god to whom that temple belongs. And what is the image in God’s temple? Humans!

The images of all the other gods are made of wood or stone. They can’t move, speak, or think. But the image of God is made of flesh and blood, and they can run and speak and write and think and choose and love! The image of God is alive! How much greater than all the other gods is that God whose image is alive. The nonfunctional, nonexistent images of the other gods imply that those gods do not exist. The living, breathing image of YHWH God means that he is alive!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review: The Lost World of Genesis One

The first chapter of Genesis is the most hotly contested biblical text of our time. Theories and interpretations abound as scholars have turned the chapter upside down and inside out looking for biblical clues (and ammunition) to the origins of the universe. There are at least four major schools of interpretation on Genesis One: young-earth creationism; day-age theory; the gap theory; and the literary hypothesis. It’s time to add a fifth school to that list: John Walton’s cosmic temple inauguration.

Walton derives his thesis from his exploration of Ancient Near Eastern cultures and their creation myths. The problem with the current, Western interpretations of Genesis One is their failure to overcome the distance between our modern culture and the culture of ancient Israel (existing alongside and within larger cultures like Egypt and Babylon, which all have their own fascinating creation stories). “Despite all the distinctions that existed across the ancient world, any given culture was more similar to other ancient cultures than any of them are to Western American or European culture.” (12)

Crossing this cultural gulf means making one significant, and seemingly obvious, proposition: Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. (16) This means that “it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions.” (16) What, then, are the terms in which it describes cosmology? This is the crucial question, and what sets Walton’s interpretation on a different course from the others.

Moderns tend to think of creation only terms of material origins. What is the sun made of and how did it come into being? How long did it take for the mountains to be formed and how did they get their current shape? What is the physical composition of humanity and how did we get to be the way we are now? These are the questions of a modern, Enlightenment-oriented culture. But these are not the questions of a polytheistic culture, or even a monotheistic culture within a wider polytheistic world? In order to understand Genesis One, we need to ask the questions the ancients asked.

Rather than questioning the material origins of the universe, the ancients told stories about the functional origins of creation. Existence, for them, was not tied to the material properties of an object, but rather to how that object functioned within a closed system. “In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties.” (26) Walton proves his point through numerous examples from ancient Near Eastern texts, and concludes with this contrast between modern and ancient thinking: “We tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like…a kingdom.” (35)

Functional Ontology is the cornerstone of Walton’s interpretation of Genesis One. Using this as his lens, he sees in Days 1-3 the creation of the three fundamental functions of life: time, weather, and food. “So on day one God created the basis for time; day two the basis for weather; and day three the basis for food. …If we desire to see the greatest work of the Creator, it is not to be found in the materials that he brought together—it is that he brought them together in such a way that they work.” (59) Perhaps a better translation of “It was good”, then, would be “It worked.”

From here, Walton proposes that Genesis One “should be understood as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple.” (84) Because “divine rest takes place in temples,” (87) the seven days of creation are best understood as a temple inauguration. “By naming the functions and installing the functionaries, and finally by deity entering his resting place, the temple comes into existence—it is created in the inauguration ceremony.” (89)

The implications of this interpretation are numerous., but I will only mention two. First, if Genesis One is an account of functional origins rather than material origins, there is no conflict between a “literal” reading of Genesis and the findings of evolutionary science. (Walton argues that the real fight between the creation (and ID) camp and the evolution camp is over teleology, and he makes some interesting prescriptions for public scientific education.) Second, if the cosmos is God’s temple (or divine resting place) then there are no such things as natural resources—there are only sacred resources, and we must adjust our ecology accordingly.

Walton’s book offers valuable insight into the Genesis One debate, and ought to be carefully examined by those on all sides. There is much more in the book that is worthy of discussion, and it is accessible enough to encourage conversation between all interested parties.

Questions: Does Walton present a reading of Genesis One that allows Christians to remain theologically and exegetically faithful while being scientifically relevant? Do you find the argument of functional ontology convincing? How does this interpretation change the game on cosmic origins?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Six Days of Creation

For the last several days I’ve been blogging through John Walton’s book, The Lost World of Genesis One. It’s a fantastic book that has very interesting and compelling interpretation of Genesis 1. Today I’m going to dig more deeply into the text and lay out Walton’s understanding of the six days of creation.

The table below represents the arrangement that Walton sees in the six days of Creation. For those of you who are aware of the Literary Framework interpretation of this chapter, you'll see some basic similarities between the two.

Day Function Day Functionaries
1 Time 4 Sun and Moon
2 Weather 5 Fish and Birds
3 Food 6 Animals and Humans

On the first day, God created light and separated it from darkness. He called the light "Day" and the darkness "Night". He is clearly establishing the function of time on the first day.

On the second day God created something called an expanse, or a firmament, which the ancients believed to be a material object that held back the waters in the sky. The expanse had windows and doors in it that allowed rain to come through in season. We can understand this today as God establishing the function of weather.

On the third day God gathered the lower waters so that dry ground would appear, and out of that dry ground grew vegetation. In other words, he created the function of agriculture, or food.

Time, weather, and food are the crucial and unique elements required to sustain life on earth. They are the ordering principles of existence. So on the first three days God is creating the fundamental functions of existence.

On the fourth day God creates the sun and moon to govern time. On the fifth day God creates fish and birds, not to govern weather, but to populate the spheres of sky and sea. He also gives them a function: Be fruitful and multiply. Likewise, on the sixth day he creates animals, not to govern the land, but to populate it with the same function: Be fruitful and multiply. The function of the beasts is life.

This, of course, brings us to humans. But that's such a big topic that it deserves its own post.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Picture of the Universe

Have you ever wondered how the ancients viewed the world? What did they think the universe looked like? Here's a good representation created by Michael Paukner. You can find it here.

While I'm not sure he and I share the same appreciation for the Bible, it is important to know how the ancient Israelites pictured the world. And who knows that in 5000 years people won't be laughing at our picture of the universe.

Rethinking Create

Yesterday I blogged about how modern folks have a certain way of looking at the world and the nature of the existence of an object, or its ontology. We tend to think of the material properties of an object as its primary characteristic of being. In other words, a coffee table is still coffee table regardless of where it is or how it is used. But the ancients didn’t think this way. They weren’t concerned with material origins because that question was settled—whatever was made was made by the gods. Instead, they thought in terms of functional origins. Of course the gods made the sun but their concern was with how it came to function in the world.

Because the ancients held to a functional ontology, we need to rethink a very important word in Genesis 1—create. If the most important thing about something is how it works instead of what it’s made of, we need to understand the word create in terms of function instead of materials.

In his book The Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton does a comprehensive word study on the Hebrew word bara, which we translate create. (And remember, in order to read a text literally its crucial that we know how to read it in the original language, not our English translation.) He finds that in every instance of the verb bara, God is the subject and the object is difficult to identify in material terms. This leads him to conclude that “the Israelites understood the word bara to convey creation in functional terms.” (43)

So what does this mean? When we read Genesis 1:1, we tend to read it like this:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing.

Of course none of us consciously add that bit at the end because we wouldn’t dare do that to the biblical text, but that’s the assumption that we work from. To create something means to give it material properties. But to the ancient mind, to create something means to give it a function and a purpose. So the first readers of Genesis 1:1 probably read it in some way like this:

In the beginning, God established the system of heaven and earth.

And the rest of the chapter doesn’t so much tell us how he did that, but why he did it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rethinking Ontology

I come across many big words in my reading, and to be honest, I don’t always know what they mean. But I like to pretend I do so that I don’t feel stupid. One of the words that I’ve come across again and again and never understood well is ontology. It comes up often enough in the books I read that I probably should have looked it up in the dictionary, but alas, in the words of Krusty the Clown, I’m a lazy, lazy man.

John Walton uses the word ontology in his book The Lost World of Genesis One on nearly every page, but he graciously provides a definition of the term at the very beginning. “The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist.” (24) Using the example of my coffee table, the ontology of my coffee table is how I define the “principle quality” of its existence.

In our post-Enlightenment world, we define the principle quality of the coffee table’s existence as its material construction. In other words, the coffee table exists whether or not it’s a part of my living room décor. It exists because it has been built. The source materials of wood and paint have been combined in such a way that a coffee table has been created. Where it is (my living room or the showroom floor) and how it is used (to store magazines or prop up my feet) is irrelevant to its existence. This is what we would call a material ontology. The coffee table exists because it has been constructed out of certain source materials.

But Walton contends that this is a relatively new way of understanding ontology—of looking at the world. The ancients, he says, were not concerned with material ontology because everything existed according to the will of the gods. In other words, there was no distinction between natural and supernatural. There was only supernatural. So the question was not, “Where did this come from” or “Who made this”. They knew the answer to that—the gods. The question was, “How does this work”. “People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function within an ordered system.” (26)

This means that we have been asking the wrong questions of Genesis 1. We have been asking the text to answer questions of material ontology, but it was written to answer the questions of functional ontology. We have been asking, “Where did the universe come from” and “How was it created”. But, in Genesis 1, God is telling us how it all works and why it was all created. In order to understand Genesis 1, we need to shift our ontology. We need to look at the world through the lens of ancient cultures rather than our own post-Enlightenment worldview. Until we can do that, we’ll never understand that all-important first chapter of the Bible.

Monday, July 12, 2010


There is, perhaps, no more hotly debated biblical text than Genesis 1. Within the Church, Christians interpret this chapter in at least four ways: 6-day literalism, day-age theory, the gap theory, and literary framework. (For a good look at the strengths and weaknesses of these four views, check out this session {with handouts} from our e4 course.) Evolutionary atheists outside of the church use this text more than any other to attack the authority and veracity of the Scriptures. It is a morass of passion, propaganda, and poor exegesis. Can we possibly hope to find clarity within and direction out of the swirling chaos of the creation v. evolution cultural war?

I just finished reading John Walton’s excellent book, The Lost World of Genesis One. (Review coming on Friday) I highly recommend that you read this book because in it, I believe, Walton points the way out of this mess. I’ll be blogging on this book for the rest of the week, and I’ll start with Walton’s most important point.

When you read Genesis 1, what do you think is going on? Is it the story of God creating the material universe out of nothing in a meager six days? How do you suppose that the people of ancient Near Eastern cultures, including ancient Israel, understood their own creation myths? What was of greatest significance to them?

Since the Enlightenment, material origins has been of greatest significance to the Western mind. When we think of creation, we think of how something came to have the physical properties it now has. Take the coffee table on which my feet are currently propped, for example. What materials is it made of? (Wood and wicker.) How was it constructed? (Probably in a factory somewhere.) These are the questions of origin that we ask.

Believe it or not, these are not the questions of origin that the ancients asked. They were not concerned with material origins. Instead, they gave significance to functional origins. That is, they didn’t necessarily care how the coffee table was built, but rather how it came to function as a coffee table within the closed system of my living room. In other words, the coffee table did not exist until I bought it, placed it in my living room, and then put my feet up on it. It served no purpose in the showroom (and therefore had no significance and no existence), but in my living room it has a great purpose and functions within the closed system of my living room décor.

When we extrapolate this out to the cosmos, we find that the ancients didn’t write mythologies and hymns about the material creation of the earth, but rather of how the earth (and humanity along with the rest of creation) came to function for the purposes of the gods. In this way, Genesis 1 is no different from the creation myths of Egypt, Babylon, or any other ancient Near Eastern culture. Genesis 1 is a hymn about the functional origins, and not the material origins, of the cosmos.

This may be difficult to understand, which is why you should read Walton’s book. I’m only summarizing here. But I’m looking forward to exploring these themes and their implications more this week.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

It's the People

If God has been teaching me anything lately, it's this: It's the people. Life is best lived with others, and I am most satisfied when I am listening to and talking with the people in my life. Despite my introversion, I am still designed for community. God has been gracious to me, too, in that he has brought me into a community full of amazing people.

First and foremost, my wife is awesome! Not only is she the most beautiful woman in the world, but she also has the perfect personality to draw me out of my introspective cave. I wouldn't have the friends I do today if I hadn't married her. And my! They're amazing! I just love to hold them close and tell them how much I love them. I know this stage won't last forever, so I'm going to take advantage of it while I can.

We have a small group (which is actually quite large--over 30 including kids) that meets in our house, and I'm continually amazed by how great everyone is. Seriously, everyone. And God has been so good to us. Dave and Nicole just had a baby, and Dave got his old job back! John and Stephanie just had a baby, too. Matt and Emilie didn't have a baby, but Matt got a good job that he's doing really well with. Chad and Christy were recently able to adopt. Jon and Kristin are about to have a baby in a month, and Jon recently got a good job, too. Garth and Kelly got out from underneath their house and will be moving five minutes from us. Bonus! God has been so faithful to each of these couples over the past year, how can I not help but have hope that he will continue to be faithful to us as well?

And that's not even everyone in the group! Bill and Kim are awesome and turned me on to some great music (One eskimO). Charlie and Katie are amazing. Eric and Heather are generous and let me borrow a chainsaw! (I'll try not to kill myself with it.) Quinn was capturing us with stories of her mission trip up the Amazon. Tess always has a smile on her face, no matter what's going on. Amy is a perceptive leader, and Erica has one of the most incredible stories you'll ever hear. This is really an amazing group of people, and I thank God for all of them. And I thank God for teaching me that life isn't about my gifts or calling, it's about the people, and the community, that God puts me into. That was a hard lesson to learn, and I pray I never forget it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Nerd Stuff: The Book Order Has Arrived

One of the best parts of my job is that, from time to time, I get to buy some new books. Last Thursday I order eight books from and they arrived today. I'm a little excited. Okay, I'm a lot excited! I know, I know. I'm a total nerd. But, because the odds are good that you are also a nerd, here are the books that arrived today.

The Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton, et. al. 

The Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig Keener. I really wanted to get the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentaries for both the Old & New Testaments, but I settled on these instead. These should be excellent resources, particularly as I prepare for the text track of e4 this fall.

Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga. I'll consider myself brilliant if I a) finish this book and b) understand ten percent of it. Woohoo!

Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites...and Other Lies You've Been Told by Bradley Wright. I saw this over at Scot McKnight's blog, the Jesus Creed, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it. What a provocative title!

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton. Yep, I'm a nerd.

God is Great, God is Good by William Lane Craig, et. al. I've never read anything by Craig, who does a lot of apologetics, but this caught my eye. I'm looking forward to hearing from the various authors, most of whom I've not read anything else.

The Bible Among the Myths by John Oswalt. Yep! I'm still a nerd!

The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton. This is the one I'm most looking forward to. I saw it reviewed by James-Michael Smith at the Discipleship Dojo and immediately wanted to read it, but haven't had the opportunity to get it until now. I think if there's one chapter in the Bible we've gotten wrong it's Genesis 1. (Actually, you could probably say Genesis 1 and 2 and Revelation 21 and 22 are the most misunderstood chapters in the Bible. Funny how we've gotten a lot of the stuff in the middle but missed the stuff at the beginning and the end.) This will be my next book review, but don't expect it this Friday. My schedule has picked up a bit so I don't have as much time to read, more's the pity.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Book Review: The House Church Book

The only bland thing about Wolfgang Simson’s The House Church Book is the title. From the first page he confronts the reader with a passionate and prophetic call for the Church to return to its biblical and first-century roots of form and expression. Whether you agree with him or not (and you’re likely to find yourself shouting “Amen!” on one page and crying foul on the next), Simson offers a compelling vision for how to move the Western Church forward.

Between the preface and the introduction you’ll find Simson’s “15 Theses Toward a Re-Incarnation of Church”, which is as rich and challenging as anything else in the book. Here are three of my favorites:
  • Christianity is a way of life, not a series of religious meetings. “The nature of church is not reflected in a constant series of religious meetings led by professional clergy in holy places especially reserved to experience Jesus. Rather, it is mirrored in the prophetic way followers of Christ live their everyday lives in spiritual extended families, as vivid answers to the questions that society asks, and in the place where it counts most—in their homes.” (xiii-xiv)
  • Time to change the “cathegogue system.” "The historic Orthodox and Catholic Church—that existed after Constantine in the fourth century—developed and adopted a religious system based on two elements: a Christian version of the Old Testament Temple—the cathedral—and a worship pattern styled after the Jewish synagogue. …Until today nobody has really changed the system. The time to do that has now arrived.” (xiv)
  • A church is led by more than a pastor. “A pastor (shepherd) is an important member of the whole team, but he cannot fulfill more than part of the task of equipping the saints for the ministry. He has to be complemented synergistically by the other four ministries [of Ephesians 4:11] in order to function properly.” (xvi)
The two major themes of Simson’s book are: 1) The shift from organized to organic church, and 2) The application of the fivefold ministry (from Ephesians 4:11) to the leadership structure of the local church. These two themes come up again and again as he advocates for a smaller and broader church structure, one that is worked out, not in cathedrals or auditoriums or “sancti-nasiums”, but in living rooms and dining rooms and backyards.

As you have probably deduced from the book’s title, Simson advocates a return to the house church format, one that he believes is biblical and consistent with God’s intended plan for the Church. Shifting from megachurches to house churches is the shift from organized to organic church. Something happens, he says, when a group exceeds twenty people—it becomes an organization. “In many cultures twenty is the maximum number of people in a group that still feels like ‘family.’ Groups of this size and smaller still feel organic and informal, without the need to become formal or organized.” (3) Growing larger than twenty requires an artificial organizational structure be placed around the organism, which “chokes it, conditions it, and ultimately prevents relational and spontaneous fellowship.” (4)

What happens when your group exceeds twenty members? Time to multiply! It is through multiplication that the organic church grows—a model Simson sees working out in creation itself. The growth potential of the organic house church far outpaces that of the current megachurch, much like a rabbit can vastly out-birth an elephant. The numbers are staggering, as Simson estimates that a multiplying house church of 12 people can, by multiplying each church once per year over a period of 20 years with an attrition rate of 25% every 5 years, grow to over 165,000 house churches with nearly 2,000,000 people attending. (59)

The key to this growth is “the fivefold ministry” of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. One person cannot play all five of these roles, but the church desperately needs all five in order to be a healthy, multiplying body. Their task, according to Ephesians 4, is to equip the church to do the actual work of the ministry. “They are to be evangelistic, prophetic, teaching, pastoral, and apostolic trainers—not demonstrators, teachers, or one-man shows. An evangelist’s true fruit is not a convert, but more evangelists.” (62) The problem we have today, he warns, is that “instead of equipping God’s people for the ministry, [these people] are performing it for them.” (62) The solution is to change the leadership model from CEO to parent. “Leadership in the way we are used to seeing it in the business, political, or religious world is not really a biblical concept. But leadership in the form of parenthood is. After all, God is not simply a leader; He is a father.” (63)

Simson is calling for a reformation of structure—what he calls the Third Reformation. Our current models will continue to frustrate God’s plan for the Church. In order for the gospel to get bigger, the Church must get smaller. In order for believers to grow (and therefore their churches to grow), they must be exposed to the spiritual parenting of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. “Many Christians have reached a plateau in their lives because they have never really been exposed to the exciting variety of these ministries and are instead sitting ‘under’ the ministry of a one-size-fits-all ‘pastor,’ who is trying to embody all of the ministries himself. Many such pastors burn out quickly, and many traditional congregations are left wondering why things aren’t moving.” (70)

According to Wolfgang Simson, the way forward for the Church in the twenty-first century is to look back to our brothers and sisters in the first century and find in their congregational models God’s intended plan for his people. As long as we try to grow our congregations large, the individual Christians and the gospel itself will remain small.

Questions: Is the house church model the God-ordained, biblical model of Church for all places and all times? How do small groups in large churches succeed or fail to live up to the house church model? Is the single-leader, pyramid structure of church leadership an acceptable model for God’s people? Is the fivefold ministry for today? If so, how would it look if it were implemented in your church?