Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Historical Jesus: Eschatological, Apocalyptic Prophet. Or Not.

I’m proofing a book on the historical Jesus, and in the following two quotes cited in the introduction, the volume editors point out that consensus is often in the eye of the beholder:

One of the strongest consensuses in New Testament research is that Jesus’
mission was to proclaim the dawning of God’s Rule, the Kingdom of
God. Research on Mark 9:1 has convinced virtually every specialist that
Jesus’ teaching was emphatically apocalyptic and eschatological. (J. H. Charlesworth, 1994)

The old consensus that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the imminent end of the world has disappeared . . . [and] is no longer held by the majority of North American scholars actively engaged in Jesus research. (Marcus Borg, 1988)

The Shams of My Demographic

It’s interesting to catalog people’s reactions to the blog-cum-book Stuff White People Like. The responses that intrigue me most are the cloying, almost gleeful way white people themselves, directly at the center of the author’s crosshairs, are eager to identify themselves as such: “Guilty!” or, “He’s right, I do LOVE my Macbook!” or, demonstrating an even more profound lack of self-awareness, “But I’VE loved the Cubs from the beginning, before it was popular to like the Cubs.” (I actually saw a comment to this effect, and a savvy commenter pointed out that this demonstrated a typical strategy of white people, viz., to claim authenticity by trumpeting their a priori loyalty to the trendy object under scrutiny.)

These responses are a little bit bewildering to me, because the insights of the blog/book seem so utterly damning, and irony is in so many ways central to white people culture. And here let me insert myself into the equation. I am a white person (albeit in qualified ways, but there is much proof). So when I read the blog, it’s like having the mirror held up to me, and as a good caricature often shows, I am able to see my flaws all the more clearly, and hopefully able to view myself with a little more irony than before. In other words it provides an opportunity for self-examination and a mild form of catharsis — some worthy Socratic and Aristotelian practices. But I said it was damning, not just funny and a little bit helpful. Perhaps this review by Matt Milliner will help explain why. Near the end he says, “Stuff White People Like . . . has defined not a race but a demographic; and by defining it, has exposed one massive pretension: We white people thought we had escaped demographics.” And later on he says, “Lander [the author of Stuff White People Like] so effectively demolishes our attempts at uniqueness that his book could legitimately be called the end of Generation X. In other words, we’ve all been found out.” (The subtitle to the book, by the way, is “The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions.”

So I necessarily ask myself as I write this: am I really just trying to demonstrate that I am part of this trendy demographic? Well, I hope not. But in many ways I can’t escape it — my adherence to evangelical Christianity providing the major exception to the rule, although Milliner also notes that Lander “inadvertently provides the definitive guide to the Emergent Church.” (But let’s be clear: I in no way identify myself with the Emergent Church, aside from also being a young evangelical Christian, and as such somewhat confused about my identity.) So what’s the tonic? The ironic self-posturing and sham pretensions of my demographic/generation having been exposed and lampooned, what to do? Here’s Milliner’s remedy, which has much to commend it:

Have children, stay married, learn more about economics, be more sincere than ironic. Despise not the specter of Lander’s book – “the wrong kind of white person” – i.e. the ones at Sam’s Club. Know that it’s as pathologically weird to hate one’s country as it is to hate one’s parents. Above all, take traditional faith seriously.

Good words, and ones I intend to (and already do) follow. But still, but still. The more cynical part of me remembers this quote from Life After God by Douglas Coupland:

You know – I’m trying to escape from ironic hell: cynicism into faith; randomness into clarity; worry into devotion. But it’s hard because I try to be sincere about life and then I turn on a TV and I see a game show host and I have to throw up my hands and give up. Too many easy pickin’s!

There’s some kernel, some germ of truth to the shams and pretensions of my demographic, some search for a genuine and authentic lifestyle that’s at the heart of much of the facade (and much of the answer, or the beginnings of one, is also found at the end of Life After God). I think it’s for people like me to parse that answer out, but importantly, much of that must be done privately, under the discipline of silence, without the snobby pretense that usually accompanies it. To that I now go.

Tertullian and the Interpretation of Scripture

We . . . do not take the parables as sources of doctrine, but rather we take doctrine as a norm for interpreting parables. (Tertullian On Purity 9.1)


John Calvin Is 500 Years Old Today

Like many people, I used to assume Calvin was as dusty, dry, and doctrinaire as he was made out to be by his detractors and supporters alike. That is until, you know, I actually read him. I was instead delighted to find his mind afire with the love of God, his prose lively, his theology dynamic and stimulating, and his spirituality marvelously devotional. (Indeed he never would have separated the latter two.) After Karl Barth read John Calvin, he described him this way:

Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

A demonic power. In a good way.

A lot of people lay much of the responsibility for the Enlightenment at the feet of the Reformers, especially Calvin and Luther (and this is not a compliment). I think, rather, that there is a better case to be made for them as the last medievals (and that is a compliment). Happy five hundredth, Old Master.


I like this portrait of Calvin because it displays his humanity better than many of the other portraits out there, which instead portray a dark arch-predestinarian looking sternly but glumly out on the world. IVP recently published a pretty decent, and extremely readable, biography of Calvin that attempts to depict him not as the fiery, despotic Genevan theocrat handing down death sentences from on high but as a human being, fiery and controversial, yes, but also thoughtful, vulnerable, and sometimes even fragile, an exile in almost constant forced peregrination, a pilgrim in complete submission to God’s will, and I think it largely succeeds. Check it out.

And check out this clever Wattersonian drawing of Calvin and Hobbes’s actual namesakes (John and Thomas, respectively) that I found here. I love it!