Dismissing Jesus: A Study Guide, Pts. 2-3

(See the Intro and Pt. 1 here.)

Pt. II: Special Blinders to the Way of the Cross

Ch. 9: Superficial Providence

How would you summarize Jones’s main object of criticism in this chapter?

To what extent do his critiques reflect your own experiences in Reformed or evangelical churches?

How have you used the doctrine of providence in your own life?  Has it been a comfort in true adversity, or a way of complacently avoiding self-examination?

How have Christians misused the doctrine of providence in interpreting American history?  Has it blinded us against a truthful examination of our nation’s history?

 

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Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 4—The Way of Renunciation

Print In chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation,” Jones introduces us to the heart of the opposition he aims to unpack in Dismissing Jesus: God vs. Mammon.  “Renunciation” here is about renouncing the “whole social system” that is Mammon: “the spirit of unsacrificial wealth, self-interest, and greed, a longing for greatness and prestige, a grasping for power, the power of domination and violence” (36). 

Renunciation is a complete act of repentance, a turning away from the ways of the flesh and the world and a turning toward the way of the cross.  In many ways, then, this chapter offers something of a meta-statement of many of the chapters that follow.  It remains fairly general, but, as far as it goes, is mostly quite helpful.  Readers may particularly profit from Jones’s extended exposition of the meaning of the three temptations of Christ,  in which he shows how Christ’s rejection of Satan’s three temptations encapsulates his rejection of all that the world holds dear: material possessions, public spectacle and prestige, and power.

Jones clearly thinks that he shines new light on these vices of greed and pride by treating all their manifestations as part of a larger overarching whole, which he names Mammon. But I’m not so sure that this new nomenclature really helps us, on the whole.  To be sure, it sheds light on how many vices that we often imagine to be separate are in fact deeply interconnected, and grow out of one another.  On the other hand, it substitutes vagueness for precision.  Moral theology has made a considerable investment over the millennia in classifying vices, and by collapsing them all into one indiscriminate heap, I worry, Jones makes it more difficult to offer concrete diagnoses of particularly evils or concrete prescriptions for resisting them.  Of course, as I have said, later chapters fill in some of the details of the big picture given here, so this worry may be exaggerated.  Still, I think it’s important to resist, at the level of terminology, a flattening out of the moral life that causes us to forget the radical pluriformity of the sins and
temptations we face. Read More


Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 2—Overview of the Way of the Cross

 

Print

I am spiritually blind.  Conservative Christian and blind. I am one of the many who followed the broad path and said to Jesus “I will follow you” but did “not sit down first and count the cost” (Luke 14:28). . . . I am the rich young ruler Jesus addressed.  I have a car, several computers, lawn sprinklers, a tiled shower, a full pantry, air conditioning, a nice outdoor deck, plenty of books, and I’ve spent years sincerely trying to figure out theological questions—“Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) (3).

So Doug Jones opens chapter 1 of Dismissing Jesus, “Overview of the Way of the Cross” (see Pt. 1 of my review here).  It is a jarring opening, but an effective one.  It shows us at that whatever this book is going to be, it is not going to be an arrogant diatribe, but a personal confession.  If we feel our consciences pricked along the way, then, we can infer, the author speaks from a pricked conscience as well, and we are anything but alone.

This is a good thing, since the language of “blindness,” which dominates in this first section of the book, would otherwise (and no doubt, still will) raise a lot of hackles. Now, while I have concerns about this language, it is clearly Scriptural.  As Jones points out, “But when Scripture addresses God’s people, it portrays spiritual blindness as rather normal.  It’s regular, common, cutting across Old and New Testaments. . . . [A series of passages are cited.] Blindness everywhere. God’s people have a high probability of blindness” (4).  Moreover, as Jones goes on to show
throughout, the very things that we American Christians have in abundance—wealth, power, security—are those things that most conspire to produce spiritual blindness.  And sometimes, the more convinced we are that we are not blind, the more likely we are to be. At the very least, the accusation of blindness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but should prompt us to sit up and listen, and take a good look at Scripture and our own lifestyles and attitudes.  Few of us should come away from the exercise without discovering massive blind spots, if not outright blindness. Read More


The Power of Water

A Prayer composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, 11/4/12
(Baptism: Marlowe Bede Smith; Sermon: Mark 10:17-31)  

Mighty God,

We come before you today humbled by the power of water, an instrument of both death and life in your all-powerful hands—water which, driven by unprecedented winds, can drown one of earth’s greatest cities; water which, cupped in the hands of one of your ministers, can wash away sins and welcome us into your household of faith.  Of old you fixed the boundaries of the deep, but by our sin, we have turned this good gift of water into a source of judgment, ever-prone to escape its bounds and visit destruction on the human race.  We have watched in shock and grief this past week the images of towns destroyed, tunnels flooded, lives shattered when the sea burst its banks  in the northeastern United States.  We do thank you, Lord, for the thousands of lives spared by ample warning, by prompt and decisive action from authorities, by courageous rescuers who entered flooding homes at the height of the storm, heedless of their own peril.  And yet we lament, Lord, each life that was lost—whether by heroism, like the off-duty police officer who shepherded seven people to safety before drowning in a basement when he went back to check for others—or by senseless tragedy, like the stranded mother whose two young boys were swept from her arms when her neighbors ignored her pleas for help.  

But by your grace, Lord, the water which in your fallen creation destroys, in your new creation restores; the water that can take the life of a young boy becomes for a young boy here the sign and seal of life eternal.  We thank you for this joyful occasion, for the blessing the Smiths have been to this congregation and your whole church, and the blessing that Marlowe promises to be through the years and decades to come.  With the waters of baptism, you are working to renew the whole world until the day when there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, when there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.  While we sojourn in this valley of the shadow of death, remind us of this your promise of grace, and give us courage to proclaim it.  But in the midst of earthly pain, Lord, we pray also for earthly comfort—for shelter, for food, for power, to those homeless, hungry, and in the dark; for love and consolation for those who have lost friends and family; for intelligent political leadership that will restore order, provide resources, rebuild infrastructure, and plan prudently to avert future catastrophes.


Lord, if the events of the past week have reminded us of the unequalled power of water, in the passage we have heard today, we are reminded of the frivolousness of what the world too often considers the most powerful thing on earth—money.  All around us in the world today, and in each one of our thoughts, are signs of this idolatry.  We pinch pennies and rationalize our stinginess, we consume ourselves seeking to advance our careers to ensure a ready flow of money in years to come, we worry and fret about the economy, about tax policy, about housing and commodity prices—forgetting your words “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.”  This preoccupation with Mammon has been apparent this past week in the response to the superstorm, as officials in New York City scrambled to get commerce flowing again in the financial district while, in poorer parts of the city, residents remained trapped in flooded houses or shivering on the streets, and as victims in places like Haiti and Cuba were forgotten altogether.  We know that you are the God who hears the cry of the poor—hear the cry of all these suffering now, and those who regularly die, voiceless and forgotten, of diseases and disasters in the Third World.  Give us who are rich hearts of compassion.

The US election campaign has also showcased our Western preoccupation with Mammom, as the only political issues worth discussing, it seems, are economic ones.  Heal us of our blindness and give us hearts for justice.  In this election, Lord, we pray for your guidance for the American people, torn between two less-than-desirable candidates.  Even at this late hour, we pray that the election would provide an opportunity for intelligent political reflection and mature public discourse.  We pray that the candidate who will ensure better justice will win, and that you will guide his heart and mind over the coming four years.  In the passage we have heard this morning, you remind us that although men will always fail us, by your grace, all things are possible.  Presidents and prime ministers will fail, shackled by the deceitfulness of riches, but you will work out your gracious purposes nonetheless.

But we do pray that, at this decisive moment in global politics, as key decisions are being taken about the leadership of the world’s two leading nations, China and the US, that world leaders would have the wisdom and the humility to set aside differences and work together on the dangers and injustices that face the entire planet.  Break the irresistible hold that Mammon seems to have on so many of our societies, and help the leaders and citizens of the world to heed Jesus’s call to put the poor first.

 

Help each of us who has passed through the waters of baptism tread with confidence the way of the Cross, following you as agents of your kingdom, ready to heal the hurts of those who are suffering earthly pains and griefs, and to proclaim through words, actions, and our own faith, the grace that can bring eternal healing for a broken world.  

In the name of your Son we pray.  Amen.


The Rich People’s Revival (Good of Affluence #1)

Over the next few weeks, as I research for and write a chapter on the theology of private property, for a forthcoming edited book called Render Unto God: Christianity and Capitalism Reconsidered, I’ve decided I will have to spend some time scoping out the enemy, so to speak.  I determined a couple years ago that I’d heard everything intelligent (and it wasn’t very much) that the conservative Christian apologia for capitalism had to say and there was no point wasting much more time on it.  In particular, I’d opted not to read a couple books that were very popular in my circles–The Good of Affluence by John Schneider, and Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards–having heard from reliable friends that they weren’t worth my time.  But now, in search of useful quotes that I can use against them in my chapter, I’ve decided to foray back into enemy territory, and actually read these books.  And I’m sure that they will provoke plenty to blog about.  

 So here’s the first post on Schneider’s The Good of Affluence, which I have just started into.  A few years back, I read a truly terrible article of Schneider’s offering, so to speak, a capitalistic soteriology.  So I approach this book with trepidation, but will try not to be more prejudiced than I can help.

The introduction, from its epigraph quoting Michael Novak, “We are going to see a revival in this country, and it’s going to be led by rich people,” to its penultimate paragraph, arguing that rich Christians in the West should feel no moral obligation to help the global poor, was certainly an unpromising start.  That said, in the Acknowledgments, he voices his admiration for “the great Kierkegaard,” which could be a mark in his favor. 

The purpose of the introduction is threefold–to explain why he wanted to write the book, to explain his theological presuppositions, and to summarize what he intends to cover in the book.  The first is quite brief, the second (which essentially boils down to, “I am an orthodox Christian and believe the Bible, even if that is unfashionable”) need not detain us, and the third, since it covers material that we will encounter in full later on, I will not dwell on, though I will flag a couple things to watch out for later.  So this post should be brief, though if you know me, you know it won’t be. 😉

First, then, a few remarks on the section explaining why he wrote the book.  The gist, he says, is that many Christian people today in the West are involved in business, often at very high levels, are making a lot of money, and want to know what they should do about it–what does their faith have to say about it?  (Now, it would be very tempting at this point to simply interject that that’s precisely what the rich young ruler wanted to know, and Jesus had a very straight and simple answer, “Go, sell all that you have, and give it to the poor”–why need we any other answer?  But I will resist the temptation, and grant that, yes, it may be a bit more complicated than that.)  And he is concerned that there is very little guidance for rich Christians on the subject, since, he says, most historic Christian teaching on wealth has been aimed at Christians who were predominantly poor.  Moreover, most Christian theological voices addressing the question today have had, he thinks, very harmful answers to give on the subject, very negative answers, based on antiquated theology and inadequate analyses of capitalism.  He wants to emphasize the positive, based on “the fundamental biblical theme that material prosperity is the condition that God envisions for all human beings” (3).  This is not, he says, the Prosperity Gospel, because it acknowledges that God often has good providential reasons for wanting people to be poor–but it is closer to the Prosperity Gospel, he says, than the radicalism that considers wealth negative.  

 

Now, I want to flag just a few things at this point.  First are some definitions that I hope he will provide as he goes along, though I doubt he will.  First, is he going to define “capitalism” for us?  He tells us “that the majority of [Christian] writers interpret capitalism and the unique culture to which it gives rise in terms that are quite antiquated.  These are largely the terms received from social theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber” (2).  A large part of his re-evaluation of the theological status of capitalism, he goes on to imply, stems from new and improved understandings of what capitalism is.  It appears that he’s planning to handle that in ch. 1, though, so we don’t have long to wait to see if he satisfactorily analyzes the capitalism he plans to recommend to us.  

One thing that I don’t think that he is going to deal with much if at all is the morality of the money-making itself.  He is interested in the ethical status of the end product–affluence–not the details of how it came about.  He tells us that he is writing to “corporate professionals…who spend the better part of their days producing goods and services in the context of making money.”  But of course, if a “good” is supposed to be something that does someone good, and a “service” is something that helps them out, then “goods and services” like, for instance, cigarettes, addictive junk food, collateralized debt obligations, and predatory short-term loans are nothing of the sort.  But many Christians make their money producing such things.  This needs theological and ethical attention–we cannot accept the lie that the money-making process is morally neutral, so long as it is minimally legal.  But I digress.  

He says on page three, “It is very widely presumed in Christian theology today that the economic condition of affluence is not a very good one for Christians to be in.  It is widely presumed that this condition is almost inherently a bad one for hearing and responding with faith and integrity to the Gospel” (3)  This, he will argue is wrong because oversimplistic.  Yes, there is a way of being rich that is bad, but “there is a way to be affluent that is good.”  I merely note briefly that these statements are actually not in contradiction.  Those who believe that the condition of affluence “is almost inherently a bad one” for faith could still very well hold (and many probably do) that “there is a way to be affluent that is good.”  What Schneider really has to do, then, is not to show that “there is a way to be affluent that is good,” but that this goodness so outweighs the risk of being affluent in a bad way that it justifies treating affluence as basically good, instead of choosing to focus on, as Jesus does, the potential pitfalls.  I also want to note a potential equivocation, which I noted repeatedly in Calvin and Commerce.  There are some no doubt who think that wealth ipso facto is bad.  But I don’t think they are as many as they are made out to be–at least, as long as we’re not talking about exorbitant, luxurious wealth (which, come to think of it, Schneider may be).  Most, I think, who are portrayed as such as actually think that wealth itself is good, but that it is bad for someone to be in a relative position of wealth over against others who are decidedly poor.  So to say, “the Bible says riches are a good thing” gets you nowhere that Schneider wants to get to, if the Bible says that riches are a good thing for sharing, rather than holding onto for oneself.  Schneider will have to upfront about arguing not that merely that affluence is a good thing, but that inequality, affluence in the face of poverty, is a good thing.  Thankfully (if that adverb is appropriate), it appears that he is willing to be upfront about this, given his remarks at the end of the introduction about why rich Christians shouldn’t feel any obligation to help the global poor.  

A final thing to note in this section.  Schneider is also upfront about the fact that he is going to be arguing against the general consensus of historic Christian teaching.  I’m glad to hear it.  Many writers of Schneider’s persuasion seem blissfully unaware of what St. Basil or St. Chrysostom or even the ever-reasonable Aquinas had to say about wealth.  Schneider is confident enough in his biblical exegesis to set aside the witness of these, suggesting that historic Christian testimony on wealth is “as much a product of ancient economic times [does that go even for Martin Luther and John Wesley, I wonder?] as it is of the full biblical narrative” (3).  Very well, but this means that his biblical exegesis must meet a very high bar.  Let us go ahead and turn to that.

 

Schneider spends the last few pages of the introduction summarizing the argument of the book.  The first chapter will discuss “the workings of modern capitalism,” but after this, it will be all biblical argument.  Chapter two will cover creation, chapter three exodus, and chapter four exile–all of these narratives of Scripture, he will argue, show us that God wants his people to prosper materially–affluence is a good thing.  I merely flag again the fact that if God wants all his people to prosper, then the affluence of some at the expense of others is not necessarily a good thing.  

Chapters five through seven will cover Jesus and his teaching–here Schneider promises to argue that Jesus was not really poor, as generally asserted, nor did he particularly identify with the poor in his ministry–he identified with all equally but differently.  Nor did he call for his followers to become poor.  This should be interesting stuff, to say the least, and Schneider certainly has his work cut out for him.   

Chapter eight will focus on the book of Acts, in which he will argue that the portrait of the early Christian social life functions as no more than a narrative ideal that is not necessarily normative for us.  He will then look at Paul and James’s teaching on wealth, and again argue that their “moral arguments must be used very cautiously in our day”–or, to be more blunt about it, “they do not provide a normative framework for spiritual and moral teaching in our day” (11).  Well, at least he’s honest about it–you gotta give him that.  I think it would be fair to summarize all this by saying that he’s going to use the Old Testament, with its affirmation of affluence, as an interpretive grid by which to show that the apparent criticisms of wealth in the New Testament cannot be taken seriously as they stand–which seems to me precisely backward as a Christian hermeneutical posture.  But that is, of course, to oversimplify–we’ll wait and see the details of the argument.

Finally, in his epilogue, as I’ve already mentioned, he says he’s going to deny that “the world-shrinking effects of globalism generate strong obligations for any wealthy person in an advanced society to any poor person in an underdeveloped one” (11).  It’s rather bold of him to come right out and say this, though depending on what he means by “strong obligations,” it might be a truism, or it might be reprehensible.  I’ll be curious to see, though I can’t say this kind of statement at the outset wins him much sympathy from me.

 

Well, that’s all for the introduction.  Hopefully being this wordy at the outset will help me be more concise later, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic about that.