In Which the Party Happens Elsewhere

There are a number of reasons for this blog’s sluggishness of late, but among them are the fact that some of my blogging energies have been redirected elsewhere.  I will now be serving as a Contributing Editor at the Political Theology blog, so look out for future contributions there, as well as for invisible traces of my editorial touch on other posts there (you’ll be able to tell that I’ve edited them if you find random intrusions of Hookerian style).  I’ve also just contributed a piece at Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Anderson’s excellent site where I’ll be contributing occasionally in future, and my initial foray, on the recent kerfluffle over women bishops in the Church of England, has already set off some fireworks.  Matt had the audacity to title it as response to Doug Wilson (which, admittedly, a significant chunk of it was), something I’ve avoided doing for four years, and so Wilson was good enough to offer a rejoinder at Blog and Mablog within a few hours.  

Wilson helpfully clarifies some of his concerns in his response, though my own concerns remain largely unappeased.  The question, ultimately, is not over whether satire and peremptory dismissal is ever appropriate when confronted with scholarly tripe, but over whether it was appropriate in this particular case.  My argument is that such a posture should be the exception, not the rule, and that our normal posture toward those with whom we disagree should be that of “intellectual empathy,” as Matthew Anderson has recently described.  Particularly, there are those who by their Christian faithfulness, evangelical witness, and diligent scholarship have earned a title to our respect, so that our instinctive posture toward them, even when they seem to have seriously misstepped, should be one of “intellectual empathy,” seeking to understand carefully where they’re coming from even as we disagree, rather than merely laughing them out of court.  Wright, I think, certainly qualifies, and so while I have my own serious disagreements not only with his conclusions but with his arguments in his contribution to the women bishops debate, I think Wilson’s is the wrong way to approach this disagreement, and serves to widen the gap between American and British evangelicals, rather than helping to foster greater understanding.   

I hope to post further on the women bishops topic here at the S&P next week, suggesting a better way of arguing than Wright’s, and also hopefully offering a Hookerian perspective on Parliament’s attempted interference in the matter.  

From Darkness to Light? The Trouble with Contemporary Translations

Advocates of new, contemporary “translations,” or rather, more often, paraphrases of the Bible insist that Scripture must speak with a fresh and authentic voice to each generation, in plain language readily understandable to its readers. After all, they point out, when the Bible was originally written, it was written in a contemporary idiom, in the way that normal people would’ve written and spoken in its time.  It wasn’t written, we are told, in a deliberately grand, archaic, dignified style that would make it feel more “holy” and Word-of-God-ish, which, frankly, is part of the appeal of the widespread enduring appeal of the KJV.  Indeed, such stilted language blunts the force of Scripture, lolling us into a sort of false comfort with the familiar rhythms and lofty-sounding thoughts, instead of allowing ourselves be jolted awake by its uncomfortable, real-world message.  

Now the fact is that these arguments, at least when applied to many parts of Scripture, have real force.  When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he spoke using normal vocabulary and idioms, the normal patterns of everyday speech.  He didn’t adopt a style that was four centuries old, or intone as if he was dictating a theological tome.  But many of us, I think, have trouble taking these arguments seriously, and tend to harbor a deep bias against any translation that adopts more contemporary language or a more paraphrasing approach–at any rate, I generally have.  The following passage, I think, encapsulates why many serious Bible-readers recoil from the very thought of a “contemporary translation”:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

For those who lived in a land of deep shadows— light! sunbursts of light!

You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy.

Oh, they’re so glad in your presence!  Festival joy!

The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.

The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants—all their whips and cudgels and curses—

Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon’s old victory over Midian.

The boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood,

Will be piled in a heap and burned, a fire that will burn for days!

For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us!

He’ll take over the running of the world.

His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness.

His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.

He’ll rule from the historic David throne over that promised kingdom.

He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going

With fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always.

The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies will do all this.

This is surely a travesty if there ever was one.  At the beginning, it’s almost tolerable, though “sunbursts of light!” certainly strikes a bad note.  But once you get to “He’ll take over the running of the world” in place of “and the government shall be upon his shoulder” and “He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going with fair dealing and right living” in place of “to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness,” it’s hard not to be writhing in aesthetic agony.  


The problem here of course is that it’s not true that the whole Bible is written at the level of plain speech–far from it.  Much is written at the level of high poetry, and Isaiah is among some of the richest and highest of all.  I suppose that someone determined to translate Scripture into contemporary idiom, so that it would strike us the way it struck the Hebrews, might attempt to render Isaiah in the form of really excellent contemporary poetic style, but I guarantee you that whatever that style might look like, this is not it.  The form as well as the content of Scripture matters, and indeed, this is the strongest argument in favor of a more contemporary translation–the argument that the “form” of overly formal, archaic speech betrays those parts of Scripture that are written in pedestrian, almost conversational prose.  But here, the form of high poetry is utterly dissolved into the anti-rhythms of casual speech.  

In the process, words that are to our cultural consciousness pregnant with meaning (indeed, meaning in many cases largely given to them by centuries of being steeped in their Scriptural usage), are chucked out the window in favor of vapid and banal pseudo-equivalents.  E.g. “fair dealing” in place of “justice”; “right living” in place of “righteousness” and “keep it going” in place of “uphold.”  In one case, Peterson has attempted to actually capture richer shades of meaning in his word choice, attempting to be more faithful to the Hebrew original—in his translation of shalom as “wholeness.”  But how is this an improvement on “peace”?  Even in contemporary usage, “peace” has not quite become a flat term; it is still imbued with great depths of longing and hope, a term onto which we project all kinds of ideals.  In its canonical context, the resonances are profound.  “Wholeness” might possibly, in terms of pure denotation, capture more, but it certainly cannot in terms of connotation.


While The Message might be enough to turn off even an advocate of contemporary translations, N.T. Wright’s recent The New Testament for Everyone (or, in North America, The Kingdom New Testament), is enough to win over its staunchest opponents.  For Wright is committed to working with the grain of the text—that is to say, adopting casual and pedestrian speech when the original Greek would’ve been casual and pedestrian to its original hearers—not forcing lofty language down to the lowest common denominator.  The result is that the words of Jesus spring to life in delightfully fresh new ways—suddenly we hear the voice of a man, of one of us, and are struck as his original hearers would’ve been with the incongruity between his appearance and the authority and profundity of what he had to say.  Wright is also committed of course to capturing the full theological nuance of the text, in a way that most contemporary translations rarely seem to be.  The following passage (chosen almost at random), Luke 12:22-32, highlights the virtues of Wright’s method: 

“So let me tell you this,” he said to the disciples.  “Don’t be anxious about your life—what you should eat; or about your body—what you should wear.  Life is more than food!  The body is more than clothing!  Think about the ravens: they don’t sow seed, they don’t gather harvests, they don’t have storehouses or barns; and God feeds them.  How much more will he feed you!  Think of the difference between yourselves and the birds! 

Which of you by being anxious can add a day to your lifetime?  So if you can’t even do a little thing like that, why worry about anything else?  Think about the lilies and the way they grow.  They don’t work hard, they don’t weave cloth; but, let me tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed up like one of them.  So if that’s how God clothes the grass in the field—here today, into the fire tomorrow—how much more will he clothe you, you little-faith lot!

So don’t you go hunting about for what to eat or what to drink, and don’t be anxious.  The nations of the world go searching for all that stuff, and your father knows you need it.  This is what you should search for: God’s kingdom!  Then all the rest will be given you as well.  Don’t be afraid, little flock.  Your father is delighted to give you the kingdom.”

It’s hard to see, really, what more an advocate of contemporary translations could ask for.  This is eminently clear and accessible, it’s fresh and authentic.  Jesus really comes to life in this version, but he still seems like Jesus, like a teacher who spoke as one having authority, and not like some dude off the streets.  And all of the theological content of his words is completely preserved, even amplified.  Contrast this again to The Message, which feels the need to go much further in its search for authenticity and accessibility, to the detriment of both in my opinion: 

“He continued this subject with his disciples. “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.”

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms?

Alongside Schneider last week, I was reading another book, David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, a sort of theological and practical companion volume to the largely historical Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.  Now, you may have thought, given my response to Schneider, and my even more vitriolic response to VanDrunen’s earlier work, that this would be a recipe for madness.  On the contrary, this VanDrunen volume has actually proven a welcome counterpoint to Schneider’s book, by turns amusing, bemusing, and confusing, but rarely maddening.  Curiously, whereas Schneider’s book seems to start from theological assumptions that I more or less agree with, and which I described as more or less synonymous with N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and then works toward appalling practical conclusions, VanDrunen’s starts from appalling theological assumptions, which one could describe as essentially the polar opposite of Surprised by Hope, and then works toward practical conclusions that it would be difficult to disagree with.


Agree with?  Me?  Well, it’s really quite curious.  The theological section reads almost like a reductio ad absurdum.  When in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, I constantly found myself saying, “How can you say that?  If you say that, you’d have to believe X, Y, and Z, but how could you?”, VanDrunen comes right out in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and says X, Y, and Z.  At times, so different were his basic theological assumptions that it felt like we were practitioners of two different religions, and certainly not both conservatives in the Reformed tradition.  The old classifications seem less and less helpful today for defining theological trajectories; reading the first chapters, I felt at times as if I had more in common with a liberal Roman Catholic than with VanDrunen.

However, the final chapter, where he cashes out what it all means for “Education, Vocation, and Politics,” all this gets turned upside down.  Reading the theological section, I constantly found myself saying, “How could you say that?  That would entail X, Y, and Z in terms of practical application.” And then when I got to the application, VanDrunen comes right out and says A, B, and C.  Or to cease dealing in abstractions, whereas VanDrunen’s theological paradigm seems calculated to prevent Christians from speaking and acting as Christians outside the four walls of the Church, to driving as sharp a wedge as possible between the life of the “spiritual kingdom” and the “common kingdom,” his conclusions seem rather commonsensical–indeed, downright Hookerian.  The gist of his counsel about education, vocation, and politics (with the occasional jarringly discordant statement mixed in) boils down to this: by all means bring Scripture to bear on every area of life, and seek to pursue Christian morality and Christian presuppositions in politics, education, etc., but recognize that because the Bible does not offer detailed guidance on the particulars of these complex and ever-changing fields, we must rely largely on discretion, and may come to differing conclusions about how best to live out our faith in these areas of life, so we must avoid being judgmental toward other Christians on such subjects.  

Really?  That’s it?  That’s all you were trying to say?  Well then why didn’t you just go tell everyone to read Hooker?  Part of my confusion may be due to a failure to accurately gauge VanDrunen’s main target in the work; in the final chapter, he seems to have in mind a lot of the careless, oversimplistic, and imperialistic rhetoric that characterizes that way many “transformationalists” in their application of Scripture to cultural and political issues, and so perhaps his project need not be read as an attack on more responsible approaches to Christianizing the public sphere.  However, if so, the confusion is VanDrunen’s own fault, since in the Introduction, as in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, he began by lumping together theonomists, Kuyperian neo-Calvinists, the emergent church, and N.T. Wright as all instantiations of the same problem, the one he is going to solve.  If your target is so lacking in coherent definition, then no wonder your alternative should be as well.  

However, even if much of VanDrunen’s two-kingdoms project could be read more charitably as a rebuttal to certain careless forms of American neo-Calvinist imperialism toward cultural, academic, and political life, the fact remains that his theological paradigm seems ill-fashioned to yield such a modest result.  I would suggest that, more consistently applied, VanDrunen’s theology cannot yield the relatively commonsensical practical conclusion that he wants to provide at the end, which is in fact fraught with irresolvable contradictions.  Further, I would suggest that a more authentically Protestant two-kingdoms paradigm–say, Hooker’s–would actually be able to much more consistently and coherently yield the desired result, a forthright but modest and provisional application of Scripture to public life.  Moreover, it would avoid some of the more disturbing undercurrents of VanDrunen’s paradigm. 


For let us not suppose that since most of the intended applications of this two-kingdoms paradigm in politics are relatively benign, the paradigm as a whole is.  By setting up the visible Church and the rest of Christian life in sharp dichotomy, and then arguing that the rest of Christian life is characterized by provisional application of our faith in changing circumstances, by a diversity of legitimate solutions, by an ambiguity of Scripture when it comes to legislating the details, and thus by an exercise of Christian liberty, VanDrunen implies that the visible Church is characterized by none of these things.  Within the four walls of the Church, Scripture does legislate for us all the details, the solutions are final, not provisional, there is only one legitimate approach, there is no Christian liberty.  And I think VanDrunen and many of his colleagues really do, more or less, think that (although he masks it by constantly equivocating on what he means by Christian liberty–a crucial ambiguity that lies at the heart of his project, as I identified in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms).  Equally seriously, while VanDrunen at times asserts a general application of Scriptural morality to public life, at other times he can’t help claiming a complete disconnect, suggesting, for instance, that only Christians are called upon to turn the other cheek, and (it would seem) even they are only supposed to do so in the spiritual kingdom, whatever on earth that means (only if another Christian hits them?). 

Throughout, VanDrunen’s method depends upon this same bewildering mixture of the obvious and the bizarre.  His general strategy is to draw attention to a very obvious truth of Christian existence (such as the fact that we live in an antithetical relation to unbelievers, even while sharing many aspects of our lives in common with them) or of Scriptural witness (such as the fact that Christ is the full and complete author of our redemption, which does not depend on our efforts), and then draws from them by implication an utterly idiosyncratic theological proposal, which he passes off as the obvious and only implication.  For instance : Christ is the new Adam, therefore we are in no sense to be new Adams.  Christ has fulfilled Adam’s God-given task, therefore, we are not called to do it as well.  This little syllogism, which is in fact the theological hinge upon which the whole book turns, cannot but lead to a crippling bifurcation between Christ and his people, which consistently applied, would seem to leave no basis for any Christian imitation of Christ, even within the so-called spiritual kingdom.  


All of these points I hope to develop at more length in further posts working my way through the book; however, as I am in the midst of a longish trip encompassing two conferences, it may turn out to be awhile.  But fear not, I’m confident this blog has not seen the last of VanDrunen. 

The Privation of Creation (Good of Affluence #4)

In chapters 2-4 of The Good of Affluence, Schneider launches into an Old Testament theology of affluence.  The main burden of his narrative is to show that God has created the material world good, and intends for his people to delight in its bounty.  The Garden of Eden, with its rich provision of fruits for Adam and Eve to enjoy, serves as a paradigm of the blessings to which God calls his people throughout the Old Testament, blessing Abraham and the patriarchs with great wealth and then inviting his people into a land flowing with milk and honey.  In short, God calls his people to an excessive material delight, not merely to the bare necessities, and so we must not, like Ron Sider, decry affluence as ungodly, something to be repented of or guiltily given away. 

Along the way, Schneider displays an actually quite impressive willingness to grapple with Biblical material that would seem to contradict his case.  He acknowledges that concern for the environment is an important part of a Christian doctrine of creation.  He does not pretend that Exodus and Deuteronomy prescribe some kind of unrestrained capitalism, but acknowledges that concern for the poor, and a legal system that institutionalises that concern, is Biblical.  He does not pretend that Amos and other prophets do not decry wealth and luxury in the strongest of terms. He says that all these things must be taken on board, that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight [Schneider’s shorthand term for the enjoyment of materiality that he is arguing for].”  This is all greatly to be appreciated; and indeed, in discussing these points, Schneider offers some thoughtful exegesis and some helpful rebukes of more careless uses of some of these texts by social justice advocates.  The problem is simply that in the end, Schneider does not think these concerns alter the basic picture he is advocating.  To be sure, they must be kept in mind, they must be taken on board, they cannot be ignored, he tells us, but it is not clear to me just how they are to be kept in mind or taken on board in the lifestyle that Schneider wants to recommend to us.  

I’m going to engage this material in four posts.  First, this post will survey Schneider’s general Old Testament argument, and a couple of large-scale objections to it.  Then, I will have three posts (which I may sprinkle in later, since I am eager to move on in covering the broad sweep of the book) addressing a particularly interesting discussion from each chapter–environmental ethics, the Jubilee law, and the application of Amos’s rebuke to luxury.  The latter two will raise key ethical principles that Schneider is concerned about: the issue of “moral proximity” in discussing the Jubilee law, and the concern over legalism in addressing Amos.  


 So, what about the big picture?  Well, truth be told, the core message that Schneider is trying to get across here, particularly in the opening chapter, is not all that different from that of N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope.  Which is to say, an anti-Gnostic argument for the fundamental materiality, and gloriousness of that materiality, that characterises redemption, and God’s blessing of his people.  We were placed into a bounteous creation in Eden and invited to enrich it still further by our labors.  Although we lost Eden, God’s plan is to restore us to it, first by leading Israel into the new Eden of the promised land, to make the whole world into a new Eden, flowing with milk and honey.  This provides a basis for rejoicing in and glorying in creation.  All of this is thus far quite salutary, especially when one compares it to something like David VanDrunen’s Living in Two Kingdoms, which I’ve also been reading.  Whereas Schneider can treat Israel’s sojourn in the Promised Land as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, and a paradigm for our own redemption, VanDrunen is forced to treat this as some weird anomaly, an 800-year interruption in God’s normal pattern of redemption.  But let that pass for now–VanDrunen will have his own blog post (or several).  

But of course, the problem with this lovely picture is that, if it really is at core much the same point that N.T. Wright is making in Surprised by Hope, it should be readily apparent that this does not get us, in and of itself, to where Schneider wants to get us–a materialistic embrace of modern capitalist hedonism.  After all, Wright uses the same basic starting point to arrive by the end of Surprised by Hope at an urgent call for Third World debt relief, to my mind a much more plausible conclusion.  Whence this difference?  Well, so as not to sidetrack into the details of Surprised by Hope, which is an extraordinarily rich piece of theology, let me just say that the key question, which Schneider doesn’t really appear to face, is “Who is all this bounty for?”  If the answer is “for everyone,” as it seems it surely must be, then this bounty must be enjoyed by everyone.  There is, it seems, a hidden premise in Schneider’s argument–the assumption of primordial private property.  

But of course, all through the first sixteen centuries of the Church, theologians assumed that the bounty of the Garden of Eden was common property, and the main question of economic ethics was how close we could or couldn’t get to realizing this primordial condition of shared bounty.  To get from Eden to an endorsement of Bill Gates, you have to assume that the privateness of property is in no way a privation, that each individual is encouraged to enjoy his own personal Eden of billions of dollars even while billions of people perish outside its lush borders.  This is why I have been convinced for some time that an intelligent theology of property is essential to these kinds of discussions.  It may not be possible for everyone to have equal access to the world’s bounty, but if you accept the principle of common use as the original condition of creation, then you have to say that it should be our goal to realize common use and equal access as much as possible (though this of course need not entail anything like precise equality).  But it’s not that Schneider says, “Yes, this should be our goal and our aspiration, but in this fallen world that’s simply not achievable, and so we need private property, and should accept that sadly, this created intention will simply not be realized until the new creation.”  That would be a defensible position.  But Schneider does not show any awareness that there is a problem, or that the massive affluence of a minority of private individuals is anything other than the fulfillment of God’s created purpose.  


At least one other serious blind spot afflicts this narrative, appearing at one of the frequent but ultimately inconsequential concessions about how wealth is potentially dangerous: 

“the root of evil in responding to material affluence is also primarily spiritual.  The text expresses it in those fall-like terms of autonomy, the attitude that ‘by my own hand’ I have got this wealth.  This is not the spirit of blessing, dominion, and delight.  It is the spirit of self-serving arrogance and pride of the worst sort.”

 This sort of statement appears repeatedly in these pages, without any sense of the crushing irony.  After all, how did Schneider begin his book?  By declaring how God has poured out, by free and inexplicable grace, bounteous wealth on America and the West, and we should be overwhelmed with gratitude?  Well, no.  By declaring how the brilliant ingenuity of this new human idea–capitalism–has given us bounteous wealth, liberated whole nations, restored us almost to Eden.  (Although as I said, this rhetoric was comparatively restrained in this book, it was still bad enough, and Schneider has said much worse elsewhere.)  How is his attitude, how is our attitude in the modern West, not “by my own hand I have got this wealth”?  (Not, I should add, that I am very comfortable with the attitude that insists we simply attribute all our Western prosperity in gratitude to God, since this encourages us to ask no moral questions about how we came by this wealth and others didn’t.)  In short, even if Schneider’s broader argument about the good of affluence were solid, we would still seem to be left with the sense that the modern Western attitude toward our affluence (and Schneider’s own) is one of extreme moral peril, warranting all the warnings of the Christian writers that Schneider is opposing in this volume.  

And I would argue that this not a simple matter of attitude adjustment, but intrinsically so.  We live, to an unprecedented extent, in a human-engineered world.  The products we consume are mostly not the fruits of the Garden or wine from the vineyards of Israel, but are products created largely by human artifice.  This is true now even of the food we eat–even if it is completely free-range and organic and all the rest, it still most likely comes to our table with the aid of all kinds of modern technology.  This is not intrinsically bad (although I think there is much to be said, and I will say something below, for regaining a more natural lifestyle in some areas), but it is clearly perilous.  If Israelite farmers had a good year and were able to feast on the new wine and oil, it was easy enough for them to attribute it to divine grace (although still easy not to, so wicked is man’s heart).  But if I made my fortune investing in Apple, or worse, by inventing Apple, the temptation to see this wealth as self-created, and hence (tying back to the first point above) to treat it as essentially private, rather than a shared blessing, is enormous.  This doesn’t mean we have to all become Diggers and Levellers, but I’d like to see a little more awareness of these perils on Schneider’s part.


This consideration suggests a possible answer to what Schneider calls “the hermeneutics of affluence.”  Is it possible that Abraham’s affluence, for instance, could be good affluence, and ours be bad affluence?  Perhaps Abraham was very affluent by the standards of his own day, but not remotely like Bill Gates or even a mediocre modern millionaire.  Perhaps then the former wealth is great, and should be received with gratitude toward God, but the latter is problematic.  Schneider spends a couple pages (pp. 74-76) addressing this objection, although he considers it essentially vacuous.  This would mean that the Bible’s ethical guidance becomes obsolete as soon as its social circumstances are transcended, so that, for instance, one could Biblically justify the technology of metallurgy, but not that of microchips.  Having made this counter-argument, Schneider moves on, satisfied that he has silenced the objection.  But I am not so sure. 

Aside from the quantitative issue, which I have touched on before and will again (is there really no point at which superfluity becomes absurd?  What reasonable use could someone possibly find for $100 million?), there is a qualitative angle worth considering.  For the affluence of an Abraham consisted in having the full capacity to enjoy natural goods.  Abraham was perhaps able to eat as much as he wanted, including some delicacies, no doubt.  He could clothe himself as much as he needed, and perhaps in some level of finery.  He was housed comfortably.  He had the means to travel when he wanted.  He was, in short, equipped to enjoy the normal bounties of God’s creation.  And this is the vision of the promised land, as well.  Up to a certain point, modern affluence enables us to do that as well–enough to buy all kinds of excellent food and drink, to have some land to enjoy, clothes for all kinds of weather, a car to take me to see the Grand Canyon, etc.  But beyond that, much of this wealth is spent on increasing artificial and unnatural pleasures (again, the jacuzzi with the built-in sound system).  This is not to condemn technology, or to say that artificial=bad and natural=good.  However, it does suggest that something may be distorted in Schneider’s vision.  For if the point is delight in the bounty of creation, then not the most, but the best kind, of wealth is best.  

Schneider throughout suggests that his opponents, calling for Christians to live simpler lives, are ascetics and world-deniers.  He, unlike them, is calling for us to enjoy the goodness of creation.  But this reminds me of the people who insist that the organic, natural food people are ascetically refusing to enjoy the bounty of creation in the form of fast food and processed foods.  (Unfortunately, I am not joking—I have heard this argument repeatedly.)  What if living more simply actually means positioning ourselves so as better to enjoy God’s creation, instead of merely our own creations?  This gets back to the second point above.  Human inventions can be great, and can be a means of enhancing our appreciation and use of God’s creations.  But what about the kind of affluence that buys a big suburban house with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, and well-manicured yard, that climbs into an air-conditioned Lexus listening to satellite radio to drive to the mall, walks across the parking lot while checking Facebook and listening to music on his smartphone, shops for DVDs and computer games, and returns home to try them out on the flat-screen HDTV that drops from the ceiling?  Is it possible that at some point, we are using our wealth in ways that actually decreases our delight in God’s creation and leaves us feeling increasingly empty as we try to entertain ourselves with more and more creations of our own?  In short, without saying that we all need to try to be like Wendell Berry, I would bet you that he experiences far more Biblical “delight” in the material world than Bill Gates does.  


And of course, this leads back to my first point as well.  For what if the best way to have true “delight” in the world is by experiencing and celebrating it communally?  What if ever more private wealth actually makes it harder and harder for us to experience Edenic delight?  Schneider, alas, is too oblivious to such questions to even ask them, much less answer them.

A Breath of Fresh Air

I’m prone to forget just why it is that N.T. Wright stands head-and-shoulders above all of his colleagues and rivals in the field of New Testament Studies, until I read an article of his again, after wading through a dozen scholars drivelling an intolerably boring concoction of scholarly minutia and sudden non-sequiturs, mixed (more often than not) with a large dose of heresy.  You turn the next page of the essay collection and out Wright bursts, big, boisterous, booming, and jolly, like a Santa Claus, come to think of it, with a huge sack of goodies on his back, nuggets of insight filled with common sense, clarity, and lo and behold! orthodoxy, delivered with an air of easy jollity and peerless prose.  I found myself typing up whole paragraph-long quotations, out of pure joy at their lucidity and good sense.  They are not, by any ordinary standards, particularly eloquent, nor are they necessarily groundbreaking (although they are helpful for my Romans 13 research).  But they are excellent.  So, here’s a few, from “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” (the tenth essay in the ten-times-more-tedious-than-it-sounds-from-the-title Paul and Politics, ed. by Richard Horsley):


“The evidence now available, including that from epigraphy and archaeology, appears to show that the cult of Caesar, so far from being one new religion among many in the Roman world, had already by the time of Paul’s missionary activity become not only the dominant cult in a large part of the empire, certainly in the parts where Paul was active, but was actually the means (as opposed to overt large-scale military presence) whereby the Romans managed to control and govern such huge areas as came under their sway.  The emperor’s far-off presence was made ubiquitous by the standard means of statues and coins (the latter being the principal mass medium of the ancient world), reflecting his image throughout his domains; he was the great benefactor through whom the great blessings of justice and peace, and a host of lesser ones besides, were showered outwards upon the grateful populace, who in turn worshipped him, honored him, and paid him taxes.  In all this, the book asks pertinently, were the emperor’s subjects doing something religious, or something political?” (161)

“His missionary work must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering thier lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth.  This could not but be construed as deeply counterimperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly.” (161-2)

“It is, of course, much easier to highlight Paul’s confrontation with some aspect of his world when the aspect in question is one that is currently so very deeply out of fashion.  To say that Paul opposed imperialism is about as politically dangerous as suggesting that he was in favor of sunlight, fresh air, and orange juice.” (164)

“Paul, in other words, was not opposed to Caesar’s empire primarily because it was an empire, with all the unpleasant things we have learned to associate with that word, but because it was Caesar’s, and because Caesar was claiming divine status and honors which belonged only to the one God.” (164)

“[Calling Jesus “Lord”] was a challenge to the lordship of Caesar, which, though ‘political’ from our point of view as well as in the first century, was also prodoundly ‘religious.’  Caesar demanded worship as well as ‘secular’ obedience: not just taxes, but sacrifices.  Caesar, by being a servant of the state, had provided justice and peace to the whole world.  He was therefore to be hailed as Lord and trusted as Savior.  This is the world in which Paul announced that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was Savior and Lord.” (168)