Trusting the author

I absolutely love it when the “forth wall”  is broken between enemies in the course of art, or especially everyday life. Some think it perverse when considered theologically, but I am absolutely thrilled and cheered by the notion of tragedy being interrupted by the actors taking off their masks (up until that point you forgot they were actors) and dancing or chatting together like old friends. I love it when movies or plays end with a dance number and the villain comes out and is stomping and spinning to the music next to everyone else.


Theologian James Alison likes this idea too and in one of his essays uses the example of the Hippo and Alligator dance from Disney’s old Fantasia animated film. At one point the hippo is surrounded by the evil alligators and seems to be in deadly peril. For just a moment though, she looks up at the camera and gives the audience a wink. It may look like all is lost, but you don’t know the whole story. The player does though. They trust the script writer.


The Super Mario video game franchise gets a lot of mileage out of this idea. One minute, Mario and Bowser are trying to kill each other. On Monday, Mario is roasted alive by fireballs. On Tuesday Bowser is pushed into a sea of lava. On Wednesday they are back, racing go karts and playing tennis together. Video games are a trifling diversion. What could they possibly teach us about the real hard world outside? I think they can help us imagine, just a little bit, what it is like when death is not the end. Death seems so final now, but in the Kingdom of God it is but a distant memory. What is good practice for not taking the scary too seriously today? Perhaps this.


The famous Christmas Truce between English and German soldiers on the front lines in 1914 is an excellent real-life example of this. For a few hours, they put down their machine guns and shared cigarettes and sang hymns. The next day, they went back to slaughtering each other, but with the recognition that all of this was happening as part of some much larger story – one they couldn’t seem to escape, it’s true, and so they pressed on with their part. But it takes real humility to do that – and not taking yourself too seriously. In fact, at the point of loving embrace of the enemy, you are not taking yourself seriously at all.


Another example came up in a photo essay published by the New York Times this week. The author visited a prison in Argentina where the felons enthusiastically practice and play rugby. The program has been praised by some for seemingly helping to rehabilitate the prisoners and keep them psychologically healthy. Once every three months, they get to travel outside the prison and play a full game on a real field against another team. This was my favorite part: Who makes up the opposition? Local lawyers, guards, and even a couple of judges. Classic. The law is as hard as stone but we as creative (not just created) beings are are also gifted with the strange ability to step right outside it, at least for a moment.

“Do you mean to tell me that the rape of that little girl I saw reported on the news last night is just in a script God wrote for his own amusement? Are we all just pawns on the chessboard of some sick game? The devil is just an actor backed up by an extensive cosmic make-up department? We are just robots playing our part? So there isn’t real good or evil? The horror of war is just some kind of bad joke?”

No. Emphatically no. These are the sorts of questions asked by people who cannot trust the author. On a bad day, I ask these sorts of questions too. (The fact that a handful of Calvinists jump to answer “yes” to some of these questions posed above doesn’t help either.) In chapter 13:15, Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” This is coming from someone who really did trust the author, despite his lack of understanding. The reason you can trust him is that He is the kind of author who doesn’t leave his people in the ground. He is the kind of author who raises the dead. And he even sent himself to be the prototype for this resurrection. No-one can fathom how all of this is supposed to work or especially why. You don’t need to. Learn to trust the author.  He is arranging for the victory over death to be total. We are walking somewhere in the second half of the story book.



Gabriel’s rebuke to questions from Zacharias but not from Mary

In Luke chapter 1, Gabriel announces two upcoming miraculous conceptions – first to Zacharias and then to Mary.

Both of them are a bit incredulous at first and reply with a question.


Mary says, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” In reply she gets a legitimate answer to her question. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you.”

Zacharias, on the other hand, says, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” Sounds like a good enough question really, and in the same format as Mary’s – Really? How? (Gives a reason why not).

Gabriel doesn’t think so though. He flips out and says something like, “I stand in the very presence of God and have been sent to tell you this, but you didn’t believe me. Are you crazy or somethin’? For that, you will not be permitted to speak for about 10 months. See ya.”

Why the difference? Is it something beyond the words, something not communicated on the page? Perhaps Gabriel could read their minds and tell that Mary (despite her questioning) had a simple underlying faith and that Zacharias had underlying doubt in need of rebuke. But Aquinas says angels can’t read minds and he’s probably right. Besides, they don’t need telepathy to do their jobs. They deliver messages to men. The two-way interaction is pretty limited.

Well maybe it wasn’t mind reading then. Perhaps it was body language or other “halo data”. Perhaps something in Zacharias’s tone of voice annoyed him. Moral of the story: Don’t talk back to angels. But that’s not the story and it doesn’t have a moral, so scratch that.

Maybe there was more to the conversation that wasn’t recorded. Perhaps Zach expressed his doubt more forcefully, but Luke (who is recounting the story not just second-hand but third-hand at least) condensed the conversation into two sentences. I’ll buy that. But the way that scripture has been kept intact by the Holy Spirit over the ages means that every word counts and that every missing word is not particularly important. So though I do not believe in the particular late modern Evangelical doctrine of “inerrancy”, I believe that everything in the gospel accounts is completely true and sufficient as-is. A greater (missing) context is not required to get all (not just some) of the important points. So the account of this interaction according to Luke is good enough.

But that still leaves us stuck. Why the rebuke to Zacharias and not to Mary? All I can figure is that the audience mattered. Mary was a teenage girl in a blue-collar family. Zacharias was an elderly priest. It was (literally) his job to know the word of God and to serve in the temple for the worship of Yahweh. Not only that, but it had been his job for many years – his whole life. It would have also been the job of his father and grandfather since he was from the tribe of Levi. He should know better.

The Pharisees often came from the priestly class. We aren’t told if Zacharias was sympathetic with the Pharisee sect, though it’s at least likely. Perhaps he was associated with the Essenes, another renewal movement of sorts. They cared a lot about God too. The old testament prophets usually came from the priestly class as well. They were used to spending time in (or at lest near) the presence of God and were more cut out to being his mouthpiece. Zacharias is of the same ilk and so Gabriel naturally expected a little more from him than from a young girl.

And so Zacharias the priest was “judged more strictly” for his initial unbelief. But in the end this doesn’t change a thing. God’s grace, his gift, is coming like a freight train into both their lives, whether they react to it properly or not. Mary got Jesus, and a good husband later that year. Zacharias and Elizabeth still received their new son John just the same. And that is a comforting thought for us who also sometimes do not believe.

The failure of the secularization thesis and the mixed bag of modernity

There are several cars in my town that carry the bumper sticker pictured below – “When religion ruled the world, they called it the Dark Ages” it says. It’s a popular sentiment and one frequently found in high school textbooks, but one that is not taken at all seriously by the bulk of serious historians, be they religious or otherwise. Several people have thoroughly debunked the myth of the dark ages though one of my favorite pieces on it is by David Bently Hart in his book from a few years ago – Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.


Along with the secular history of the “dark” ages, is also an eschatology of sorts. It is their hope for the age to come. The prophecy for the future tells of a world where religion fades into obscurity and impotency as science, technology, and rational thinking gloriously dominate the minds and hearts of the people. This alleged story is still told today despite the fact that huge swaths of the world’s population are more religious than ever before.

James K.A. Smith explains this false prediction in a 2008 essay titled Secularity, Globalization, and the Re-enchantment of the World.

According to this sociological predictive thesis, the gradual but steady growth of modern Enlightenment will roll back the superstition and mythology associated with religion. Agents who participate in the market that yields iPods and jet aircraft couldn’t possibly cling to the magical world of religious belief. Progress in modernity would be the progress of rationalization, Weber suggested, which would mean a radical “dis-enchantment of the world” and thus a secularization of society.

The secularization thesis, however, has fallen on hard times. The prophetic prognostications of [Max] Weber and his ilk proved to be only the predictions of false prophets – with the interesting exception of Europe (though even that exception is contested). The reevaluation and reassessment of the confidence placed in the secularization thesis has yielded a need to revise accounts of the relationship between the globalization of capitalism and technology, on the one hand, and religion on the other. What was expected to be the triumphant march of demythologizing modernity – exporting the mechanism of scientific rationality, technological progress, and economic growth – rolling back the superstition of religious belief has not come to pass. Instead, we have seen the mechanisms of religious belief appropriating and taking up the fruit of modernity (televangelist global TV networks, Al-Qaeda Web sites, industries of religious marketing) for un- and antimodern ends. But in this respect, one could wonder just who is appropriating whom: is it that the forces of religious belief are beating modernity with its own tool – akin to David slaying Goliath with Goliath’s own sword? Or is it the case that the market and modernity are subtly winning this contents, transforming “religion” into a commodity that is commensurate with globalized capitalism? Has the “religion” that has perdured into late modernity become merely the chaplain of the forces of globalization, marshaled for exercises in foreign policy that are primarily interested in the expansion of freedom in the form of free markets? If the only religion that survives modernity is a religion wholly commensurate with and subservient to the market, might we – for the sake of religion – hope for a little MORE secularization? If these are the only gods left to us, might we not – even as the faithful – hope for another Nietzschaen announcement of the death of such gods? (p.5)

I’ve sat under the teaching of Christian psychologists who insisted that appropriating some of the most useful ideas articulated by Freud was analogous to “plundering the Egyptians”. I don’t disagree with this notion actually, but it does raise a question on the back of it: How much of the fruit of secular modernity can you fill your faithful life with before it begins to be another thing entirely? AND, if this went on gradually for generations, would you even be able to TELL that it was happening?

So this is the challenge for us who desire to be faithful to God. Though I speak from the standpoint of an Evangelical Christian, I see this equally being the situation for fellow Catholics as well as Muslims, Jews, and some Buddhists. We reject secular modernity with our left hand – its nihilistic anthropology and non-ethics – while with our right hand swiftly adopting global capitalism and a myriad of dubious medical technology.

We are pulling ourselves in multiple directions and it is difficult to stay oriented. Our leaders argue about these things but are able to come to little consensus when their own lives are so shaped and entangled by them. It is challenging to come up with proper examples in my own imagination, which is disconcerting to me. I will give just one example.

We religious conservatives like to affirm how extremely valuable and central family relations are – committed strong and kind fathers, nurturing mothers, the comradery of sisters, etc. How good and pleasant it is for brothers (both biological and otherwise!) to dwell together in unity. (Psalm 133:1) Hooray for family! Then we purchase multiple automobiles for ourselves and help each one of our children buy a car before they are even adults. We try to get them into colleges thousands of miles away where they will meet and marry strangers and deliver their babies in a lonely hospital a world away. Maybe if they are lucky their new local church will organize to bring them some meals for a week and a box of diapers, as if that will patch things up. Everyone is busy working hard to pay for their cars and fill them with gas. We’re all dressed up but there is nowhere to go within range of the weekend. Skype video chat is nice, but will only do so much to connect you to someone you’ve ejected from your orbit with a rocket. Are we sure we know what we are doing?

We think we are pretty good at picking and choosing what fruits of modernity are good and wholesome and actually blessings from God and rejecting the fruits that are rebellious and demonic. I am not so sure. I think sometimes can discern these things, and sometimes we are seriously duped and make a lot of mistakes. Our parents and grandparents did and we still are. These things deserve more contemplation and prayer than we generally give them.

The quick dismissal of communal living

Growing up, I used to always hear communes described as ridiculous hippie experiments. Real Christians in America knew the best way to please God was to work hard and give your family a nice place to live in the suburbs. All that stuff about communal living and the book of Acts? Eh, well maybe that worked because the apostles were magic or because things were different back in the Roman empire (what exactly?) or because mumble mumble, times change. Lots of old Bible stuff isn’t for today you know, like polygamy or prophecy. Sharing all your stuff must be something like that.

The idea was always dismissed despite the fact that this kind of intense charity is one of the most explicitly recorded models in scripture we have for how to live as Christians. We don’t live in first century near the Mediterranean, it’s true, but shouldn’t the idea of communal living at least deserve some consideration? Saints’ Paul and Luke didn’t mention it for nothing. I thought some of us conservatives pride ourselves for how literally we take the Bible. Apparently we are pretty selective after all.

Why does this get shot down so quickly today? In America, private property and privacy is king. (See the first amendment of our constitution.) Theology has to be phrased in such a way as to legitimize the centrality of the free individual. This is more part of our Puritan heritage than we know, and not the good part.

The early settlers of the Plymouth colony (from the Mayflower) were very excited about living like the Christians in Acts when they first arrived in America. But they quickly threw that idea out the window. Every man for himself! And yet these people are part of our national mythology as Christian heroes and champions of human rights and democracy. They were highly praised in both the secular and Christian textbooks I was assigned to read in school. So what’s the matter?

Doug Jones explores that here in one of my favorite sections of his book Dismissing Jesus.

[Capitalist apologist] Thomas DiLorenzo gives the usual answer about the Pilgrim experiments in collective farming: “Communal land ownership certainly caused problems for the Pilgrims,but, Bradford noted, ‘God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them’ – and that course was private property… Only a capitalist system saved the suffering American settlers.” But why? what was so magical about private property? The typical answer is that it avoided the free riding problem. Private property required “each individual himself bore the full consequences of any reductions in output” and each individual had “an incentive to increase his effort because he directly benefited from his own labor.” In short, we say, self-interest trumped self-denial, and there’s no way of ever changing that. Humans must be polytheists forever. Christ can’t transform self-interest. Of course not.

Why were medieval monks able to sustain collective living for centuries but the Pilgrims only for the blink of an eye? The Pilgrims failed at collective living not because of the dictates of some unitarian, impersonal economics laws about self-interest. Their failure was much simpler than that. They lacked the habits and virtues of self-denial. Listen how William Bradford described the moral reasons for their failure. Ironically, he began by saying those involved were “good and honest men” but then said:

“For the young men who were most able and fit for service objected to being forced to spend their time and strength in working for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong man or the resourceful man had no more share of food, clothes, etc., than the weak man who was not able to do a quarter the other could. This was thought injustice. The aged and graver men, who were ranked and equalized in labour, food, clothes, etc., with the humbler and younger ones, thought it some indignity and disrespect to them. As for the men’s wives who were obliged to do service for other men, such as cooking, washing their clothes, etc., they considered it a kind of slavery.” (Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, p.116)

This reveals these people were spiritual basket-cases, not Christian heroes. How could Christ-followers called to foot-washing see service as “slavery”? How could people called to embrace the public shame of the cross grumble over indignity and disrespect? How could people called to care for the weak grumble over being put on the same level as the weak? These people hadn’t even passed out of Sermon on the Mount 101. They had no bodily sense of self-denial. They should never have attempted a communal project together. And yet Bradford had the gall to conclude, “Let none argue that this is due to human failing.” Seriously? Mammon was already deep in their bones. They couldn’t escape it, and they passed on that habitual idolatry to the American centuries that followed. Thanks for the legacy.

Hey, we are super Christians – see even our name should give you a clue to that – “Pilgrims”. We are very very serious about the Bible and religion. They were trying to kill us in England so we sailed all the way over to the new world and risked our lives for the freedom to practice Reformed Christianity the right way. We rock! And we tried this commune thing and it didn’t work. So that means it must be a bad idea. If God wanted us to do it, surely it would have worked out – providence and all that. But He showed us that capitalism is where it’s really at. Heyo! Next on the agenda is establishing a large lending bank. What could possibly go wrong?

Now I’m not ready to go start a commune. Why? I think it’s because I have difficulty imagining how it would work, how it could work. But that’s because I’m a child of this same system where “hands off my stuff” is the credo. (Lest you are all worried that Jones is a political liberal, he has nothing good to say about socialism in his book either, but that is another topic.) I am going to have to learn to love more and share more where I have been planted for the time being. And that means figuring out what to do with the weekly paycheck from the state for my labor and a house in the nice part of town. Having children who need surgeries seems to make some of these decisions a bit automatic. Perhaps it’s a blessing. Time to go read the Sermon on the Mount again.

Great power, great responsibility?

This post is a sort of continuation of yesterday’s Eliminating the sliding scale of love.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” James 3:1

“With great power comes great responsibility.” – Uncle Ben, in many variations of the Spider Man comic and related movies although Voltaire said something just like it in French a lot earlier.

Two warnings here – one from scripture and one from popular culture that seem, at first glance to be saying the same thing. What does power, responsibility, education increase? Supposedly it increases the possibility of us committing sins of omission. The more you know, the more you SHOULD be doing. The weight of the burden increases to match the relative size and strength of your muscles. Lets take a look at how this can play out.


If you are a bumpkin, then expectations are low and you are easily forgiven. We imagine we are being graceful when we quickly forgive illiterate people in rural Zambia or Peru for their ignorance. But if you are smart, then you have no excuse for your actions. You have a Ph.D. and went to college for eight years? You aren’t off the hook! How dare you do something stupid! You should know better.

Do you make $20k a year and live in an old trailer? Well hey, it’s totally fine that you couldn’t scrape together $100 to buy a plate at the crisis pregnancy center fundraising dinner. But that guy over there – he makes six figures and lives in a McMansion! He has no excuse. If he’s a Christian (as he says he is), why doesn’t he sell that damn Land Rover and get a cheaper car? He could have given all that money to the poor! He’s got power and money and with that comes more responsibility. AmIRight?

The teacher is held to a higher standard than the students. They have a problem with their marriage? That’s bad. The pastor has a problem with his? Super bad! Let’s follow James’s advice and be extra strict with him. He needs to get his act together, and while he’s at it he could get off his lazy butt and come up with some better sermons. He has a seminary degree after all – isn’t he supposed to be the smartest guy in the room? Also, since he is the pastor and is holier than the rest of us, he should be doing even more to serve the body of Christ. I called him up last weekend to ask if he could help us move into our new apartment and he said he couldn’t because he was going to a baseball game with his son. What a poser! With all that power comes great responsibility. He doesn’t get to go to baseball games like average people. He will be judged with greater strictness, so says the apostles. Doesn’t he know this? Doesn’t he read the bible? Doesn’t he like Spiderman? I will pray that he gets his act together and that the Holy Spirit protects him from burnout. Hmmm, in fact the last four pastors we have had all quit due to burnout. I wonder what their problem was? Oh well.

Conservative politicians have always wanted to set up welfare programs this way. It’s wise and biblical, right? Poor people have to carefully document how poor they really are and that they haven’t smoked too much weed lately to qualify for aid. You have to be declared special to get the bar lowered. On the flip side, liberal politicians make sure the tax code is set up to thoroughly inventory the rich so a much larger chunk of their wealth can be confiscated by the state each year. With a great fat wallet comes great responsibility. And we are pretty sure you aren’t responsible so we are just going to put that money to noble use whether you feel up to it not. If Spiderman won’t fight his own demons, then we’ll MAKE him do it. It’s in everyone’s best interest of course.

Think about how much the topic of birth order is discussed with regards to parenting. How come first-born children have all this extra stress on them? It drives them to greater things – true, but it also sometimes drives them to snap. They are being held subject to the same crushing force.

The problem is that I don’t think this force is Christian. I don’t think it’s something Jesus pressures us with. I don’t think the Kingdom of God is set up to work like this. I don’t think St. James and the guy from Spiderman (or Voltaire) are actually saying the same thing. Martin Luther was so frustrated with people thinking that they WOULD think that that he wanted to have James thrown out just to keep things safe. But I think we can keep James as long as we read the whole bible, especially the gospels.

First of all, we need to differentiate between soteriology and orthopraxy. Whether God loves you or not, whether Jesus died for you or not, is not something where the more capable humans among us are “judged with greater strictness”. The judge on the throne is the Lord and he declares us righteous by proxy (the work of Jesus) – not by any evidence, good or ill, presented on our behalf.

On the other hand, whatever our hands find to do, we should do it with all our might. (Ecclesiastes 9:10). What this looks like will vary for each person, whether they are faithful in it or not. We are different functioning parts of the body. (1 Corinthians 12:210). Our roles are not uniform or freely interchangeable. There is a list of standards for elders or teachers in the church, age being only an implicit requirement. And this doesn’t mean that God is breathing down these people’s necks, putting a heavier burden on them than everyone else like a boss trying to wring the most out of his highest paid employees. Again, that is how we in the world lord it over each other. It is not so in the Kingdom of God.

The world puts the best people up on a pedestal so that we may worship them one day and then throw tomatoes at them the next. Their position is so fragile due to the ridiculous expectations. We loved to love Lance Armstrong and then we loved to hate him. We swooned over Mel Gibson and then delighted in throwing him out for bad behavior. Bill Gates is a responsible rich guy because he spends his money fighting malaria. Larry Ellison is an evil rich guy because he spends his money on fast sail boats. This is how we judge everyone.

Where this goes especially south is when we put Christian leaders up on the pedestal. We buy their books and watch their TV shows and hang on their every word. And then we curse them and burn them in effigy when their moral failings come to light. They have greater responsibility, yes, but then we amplify the situation 100x larger than the man or women themselves can handle and hold them up to an impossible height. Who can stand? The ones who appear to do so are just faking it.

The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are the servants of all. They may hold a high office, but on the ground what that looks like is that they work tirelessly behind the scenes and only a relatively small circle of folks in their local community is really that aware of all they do. Then they are free and it is left to God to judge the work of their life. He may give them a crown some day or he may say their work was more like hay and stubble (1 Corinthians 3). But when the verdict is coming from the one you know to be a loving Father, how fearful need you be? That is what Jesus means when he says his burden is light. It is not the burden of the world – of the crowd. Even the Father’s strictness is still light compared to that.

Eliminating the sliding scales of love

A few days ago, my entire family spent two days in the big city. We were there to see the ocularist, that is, the master fake eyeball maker. His work is actually really cool, as you can see in this interview video.

It was actually his daughter who did a lot of the work – just like her father and just like his grandfather, making her a third generation eyeball maker/painter. The new eye was for my youngest daughter of course, who is almost completely blind due to glaucoma. We had one of her eyes removed last April. The new prosthetic works great. It’s comfortable and looks really nice. Hopefully we’ll get five or more years service out of it.

To save money, we slept (all six of us in one room!) on the floor of a friend’s house there in town. She is a single lady who works as a nurse but also is mother to several foster children, one of whom she has completely adopted. Just down the street from her was another couple of friends who have adopted five children, most of them Mexican-American.

Conversations during trip were refreshing and fascinating. The one mother talked about how there are three different public pools in town and how all the snooty moms with perfect kids and perfect hair raise their eyebrows when she shows up with her herd of Latinos. The kids that have lived for a couple of years with the other mom – most have had multiple surgeries and live with a variety of shunts surgically implanted in their bodies. We were awakened in the morning to the sound of the feeding pump motor giving the baby his breakfast on a timer.

I was really touched though at how everyone loves these kids so much. I love mine and they love theirs. The fact that nearly all of them have some pretty visible “problems” or “shortcomings” is of no consequence. Heck, even my “normal” kids have their own issues, they are just not things that will show up on an MRI. We are all broken, but God, our father, loves us just like we love our children.

Some of these kids will go on to live independent and relatively productive lives. A couple of them are probably never going to head to college, but they might make it as an auto mechanic. Some of the others definitely won’t be going anywhere – they have some serious mental problems. Will they ever be able to read the bible competently or recite a catechism of some sort? Heck no. But they can still be taught the name of Jesus. It made me realize how silly the idea of some kind of established standard is for gauging whether someone is a legit Christian or not. What is the “age of accountability” for these kids? Some of them are NEVER going to reach a level of understanding that meets anyone’s definition of that. So should they not be baptized? Should they not not ever receive the bread and wine – in which Jesus has promised to be present to us in? By no means! They should! Do not withhold it from them.

Ah, but these kids are special exceptions, right? They are just too broke to be held to some kind of standard so they don’t count. The rest of you though, you need to get with the program. You have to say the right prayer or show that you have a Christian “worldview” before you can receive the sacraments. What kind of nonsense is this – as if we are NOT broken (and therefore under some kind of law) and they ARE broken (so under grace)? If Jesus died for us than it is His work, not ours and we are all under grace.

God’s grace is not dispensed on some kind of sliding scale where people with the most education or leadership responsibility have the highest bar to stay above and the average folk have a lower bar and then kids whose brains are wonky because their mom drank too many beers while they were being formed have a super-low bar. This kind of sliding expectation set is all law, all the time. It demands that we meet some kind graduated set of prereqs to be considered legitimate followers of Christ. It fits oh-so-nicely into our Modern merit-based pay-grades and other worldly measurements that surround us daily. But not so in the kingdom of God. The good news is that Jesus threw the scales and the checklists into the trash and we are free. That is good news indeed.

Just as we love our broken kids, so the father loves us – only with infinite patience and power. I got to see a lot of that first hand and up close last week and it was a blessing to me. I even found myself loving the other kids too – for who they were. I realized that if we are going to learn to love anyone – from cranky in-laws to back-biting coworkers, to our viscous enemies in foreign lands, we have first got to do away with our own home-grown thresholds and sliding scales that determine who is worthy of love or not. They all are.

Notes on Doug Jones’s Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross


I’ve come to find the preface of books to often be their most fascinating and revealing piece of content. Never has this been anymore true than with the first publication by Doug Jones in many years, “Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross“.

From the preface:

Ten years ago I would have dismissed this book rather quickly, after reading just a few paragraphs. I would have thought it missed the importance of beauty and joy and laughter, in the way I narrowly conceived them then.

Twenty years ago I would have dismissed this book with just a glance at the table of contents and back cover, for what I would have judged as a minimizing of the power of doctrine. It would not have meshed with my assumption of a worldview through which every answer clicks out automatically.

Thirty years ago, if I even would have picked up this book, I would have quickly denounced it as Marxist crap masquerading as Christian faith, completely hopeless and dangerous, lying about the whole gospel.

I can’t see any way I could have broken through to my earlier selves. They had barricaded themselves too well.


“Persuasion is a terribly strange thing.” he continues. “It’s astounding we are ever persuaded of anything new.” But that, as astounding as it may be, is what has happened to Doug. He believe many things very strongly and wrote about them in books and journals and magazines throughout the 1990s and 2000s. He taught them to students for years at a classical Christian college. But slowly things changed and he become increasingly uncomfortable. He pushed for some change amongst his friends and colleagues and found little room to maneuver. But instead of creating stink and schism within his church, he quietly stepped down from his responsibilities as a professor and elder and, for the sake of unity, shut down his blog and other writings as well. This new book is the first thing of his to see the light of day in quite a few years.

The forward for the book is written by Peter Leithart, but again, here we find clues that what follows is going to be interesting. Though supporting and encouraging the work of his friend, Leithart makes an open disclaimer (with a list) that there is much in the book he is unpersuaded by.

So what on earth is in here? The short answer is that the book is a critique of rich intellectual Christians who want to live the American dream and have their main contribution to the world be the writing of theological commentary and keeping a well-groomed lawn. (Jones counts himself firmly among these ranks. The book is openly a self-criticism of sorts.) Is the book (like most Christian writing) long on diagnosis and short on cure? Yes, as you might suspect. He does take a stab at it for about three chapters at the end. The short answer is that we should spend more of our money and energy on helping the poor and spend NONE of it propping up worldly institutions of Mammon, especially banks, politicians, and envy-generating marketers). After scripture, of which there is a tremendous amount, especially from the Sermon on the Mount, the most often quoted source is Bonhoeffer. That should tell you something.

I don’t intend this post to be a proper concise review of the book. I would like to walk through it and highlight a few of my favorite passages, occasionally adding a few comments or clarifications.

For what it’s worth, I am particularly persuaded (or maybe softened is a better word), by up-front humility as well as a meta or outside view of the material itself. On the first page, we get both:

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 have taught and pastored and misled many sincere Christians – congregants, students, my family – for decades, preaching cheap grace and missing the weightier matters of the law. “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33). “Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).
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) Bonhoeffer commented on the rich young ruler’s strategy: “Keep on posing questions, and you will escape the necessity of obedience.”

Why read on, then? Why read a book by the spiritually blind? Maybe, because I am not alone. I suspect you, like me, are a rich young ruler. Most of us in the West are. It’s our most common shape. At least, Jesus “looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). Maybe there’s hope for us.


Jones spends the first half of the book defining “The Way of the Cross”. It is the way of “weakness, renunciation, deliverance, sharing, enemy-love, foolishness, and community.”

The way of weakness is opposite the way of fame and relevance. It is to follow Jesus’ model, the way of the bondservant, the way of the rich becoming poor to raise others. He said he didn’t bring a universal message for everyone. His kingdom wasn’t going to focus on those who were “first” in the eyes of the world. He didn’t come to serve the so-called healthy and righteous. Jesus come to focus on the weak. The rich and powerful might come along, too, though it would be very difficult for them to be happy in his kingdom on earth (Matt 19:23)

Jones pushes back against capitalism early by quoting its greatest prophets and allowing them to sound ridiculously religious:

“Money is, with property, considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion and enables it to perform it most essential functions”. – Alexander Hamilton

“Money is the root of most progress, the ascent of money has been essential to the ascent of man. Financial innovation has been an indispensable factor in man’s advance from wretched subsistence to the giddy heights of material prosperity that so many people know today.” – Niall Ferguson

“Free-market capitalism, based on private property and peaceful exchange, is the SOURCE of civilization and human progress.” – Thomas DiLorenzo

Jones points out that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t serve God and mammon. What we see today in the world is the rule of mammon. Conservatives in the church often risk their lives to defend it too and it’s brutal karma. The way people’s attention hangs on the Dow index or the actions of the Federal Reserve looks remarkably like devotion to a deity. And we criticize all of this, yes, but not nearly enough. Our own mortgage is still a given of course.

Jones kicks off the next chapter by putting some of the insight from Leithart’s groundbreaking Against Christianity to good use.

Almost every aspect of modern Christianity assumes that the faith is first and foremost a set of ideas to be believed. That’s it. Sure, we encourage some marginal action on the side, but that’s not truly important, not central. Our worship is primarily about explaining and singing ideas, our schools focus on transferring ideas, our evangelism spreads ideas, our apologetic tries to persuade others of ideas, community means chatting with people who share our ideas, our entry into heaven requires holding the right ideas in our heads. In centuries past, this strange obsession with ideas simply went by the name of Gnosticism – the ancient heresy that ideas and intellect are more important than bodies and people and actually doing something. We even have a safe, approved word to hide our new Gnosticism – “worldview.”

Many Christian traditions have spent the last few decades fine-tuning what it means to have a Christian worldview. It seems to be all we’re good at. Notice that viewing can take place at a nice, safe distance. You don’t need to be involved or get your hands dirty. It would just be awkward to call it a Christian wordsmell or worldtouch. Those would require closeness and bodies. We just want a Christian set of ideas, and sight has long served as the favorite sense of Gnostics throughout history.

Question for you. Think about what you are DOING right now in your life. Now, think about all those same things you were DOING about 4 years ago before you watched The Truth Project or some other kind of “worldview” curriculum with your small group at church. Has anything changed? Explain. Maybe it has and The Truth Project is, in many respects, not too shabby. What is the answer to this question though? This is just an example. Maybe you went through The Alpha Course or read a bunch of old stuff by Francis Schaffer, which is what my parents did in their time. Adjust this question accordingly.

Here is another question, an experiment really. This time from Jones:

What if, as a thought experiment, we weren’t allowed to talk about ideas? What if we were only allowed to act without words A famous slogan, apparently misattributes to St. Francis, but still very much on target, puts it this way: “Preach the gospel, and sometimes use words.” Imagine going further and living with an actual constraint against words in our ministries. Imagine we could only evangelize by actions… this highlights how deep our Gnosticism is. Most of us would be completely lost. Nothing we do is geared for serious action. Interestingly, Jesus actually came close to a constrain like this. He said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Here, we find reasons not to dismiss the story of the rich young ruler:

Most of us dismiss the Rich Young Ruler by assuming he had a rather unique and unhealthy, over-obsession with wealth that was quite peculiar to him. We deny that he represented a class of people, us. We say his equal in modern times might be the super-right, far above us, who have ten cars and a champagne sense of entitlement. Whoever this peculiar, radically unique Rich Young Ruler was, he wasn’t us, no way. He was a freak. And anyone who suggests otherwise must be full of envy and very ungrateful, yeah.

The fact is that all the twists and turns about the Rich Young Ruler aren’t in the text. The Rich Young Ruler is common, not unique. As Berdyaev would say, he was simply part of the normal vacuum of Mammon that we wealthy always incarnate. And Jesus’s command itself wasn’t unique to this one man. Elsewhere Jesus spoke quite universally to his followers: “whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:35)

Later, Jones takes on the libertarian sacredness of modern “private property” saying that nothing even close exists in the Levitical law provided by God. There is no justification for calling “theft” all taxation or redistribution of wealth.

The next chapter is a lengthy criticism of the Christian endorsement of war and violence. He draws from early church fathers and leaves contemporary voices like Yoder and Hauerwas out of the discussion (for now). Jones sticks to argument from scripture whenever possible. I suspect that he is well aware that mentioning the “wrong” name in a footnote will get him quickly dismissed without engagement.

Jones’s soteriology is still firmly Reformed, but he is fed up with some of its side-effects.

Part of “the broad way that leads to destruction” throughout church history has been to assume that the Christian gospel is mainly about using this mental thing called faith, i.e., intellectual assent to certain truths, as the key to getting individuals into heaven, one by one. This is the majority of Reformation traditions. It’s the view that Bonhoeffer complained about as “cheap grace.” We got to this notion largely by a simplistic, reductionist reading of the apostle Paul’s contrast between faith and works. If “works” means doing things, and that’s bad, then “faith” must mean thinking things, and that’s what Paul wanted. Just believe your way into heaven.

This drives me nuts too. The phrase “saving knowledge of Jesus Christ” should be banned from all gospel preaching. It gets my vote for worst evangelical idiom of all time.

Later, he uses Randy Alcorn’s popular book on heaven as an example of this kind of thinking, especially prominent in America.

How does Alcorn assure us that we’ll make it into heaven? He first warns us that “religious activities alone” will not get us into heaven. No, his preferred answer is purely intellectual: “Make the conscious decision to accept Christ’s sacrificial death on your behalf.” Ooooh. It’s not mere belief, no. It’s a special “conscious” decision. That capture so much of modern evangelicalism.

With this view, discipleship can be completely minimized. Later he points out how Abraham’s faith was made manifest when he raised the knife to kill Isaac. The act was the essence of his faith. Just believing it in his head made nothing happen. This faith (with action or not) is not what saves us (again, that is God’s work), but it is what our lived faith looks like. Invisible faith is non-faith Jones contents.

In his final definition chapter, he tackles the idea of “community”, specifically pushing back against Modern and Reformation focus on the individual.

Jones kicks off the next main section of his book with a quiz where you try to guess whether a series of quotes can be attributes to Puritan theologian Thomas Watson or one of the pagan Stoics. It’s not an easy test. The point of the chapter is to point out the trouble with using “providence” as a catch-all category for explaining everything and dismissing the idea that we should do anything about it. Lots of suffering in the world? Oh well. God wills it. Whatev. Don’t get involved.

In the next chapter, (10), Jones argues that we over-emphasize personal sin, to the nearly complete exclusion of corporate and community evils. We spend so much time preaching against lust that there is never enough time left on the clock to talk about anything else.

Sometimes I wonder if we can even see communal and corporate sin anymore. When you ask American conservative evangelicals about social sins the only examples we keep coming back to time and again are abortion and homosexuality. those are huge and serious issues. But we should wonder just a bit about why we so easily default to those sins… they are safe targets because they are not generally out sins but belong to other groups… Jesus, too, was surrounded by cultures of abortion and homosexuality, ye he never mentions them. Why did he seemingly “ignore” these issues and focus instead on the powers of Mammon? Why can we only care or see individualistic acts?

In chapter 12, Jones puts in a major plug for the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, contra penal substitutionary atonement. This is sure to make some his Reformed brethren to completely flip out. (See the ridiculous book-length back and forth between John Piper and N.T. Wright a couple of years ago.) I am personally quite sympathetic to this view as well since I was introduced to it in the work of Robert Webber a few years ago. I must point out that it also makes a lot more sense to Africans where legal courtroom talk is a very ineffective analogy. Now it’s not that substitutionary atonement is true and other theories aren’t. Jones isn’t abandoning his Reformed faith, he is just recognizing that it emphasizes some things to the exclusion of some other good things. He wants to get those good things back. So do I. It’s undeniable that Christus Victor was the default position for the first couple of centuries of the church. That alone should make it worth more of our consideration.

The next chapter is on how neither the modern political left nor right is particularly Christian.

Capitalism and socialism are both incarnations of Mammon. Like the perfect sucker, the Christian church rode the rails as far away from Marxism as possible, spending the next century debating doctrine and missing the weightier matters of the kingdom, while the poor were enslaved and slaughtered around the world.

Jones goes on to trace the history of the Cold War and how the church’s close alignment with political conservatism fostered the idea that is was absolutely fine to be super-rich while the invisible hand of the market ensured that the poor were always screwed hard. At least it wasn’t communism. Go us.

Next, the chapter on private property is one of the better ones in the book.

As Christians, one of our first questions about property should be to think about how property would function within the life of the Trinity. Does the Trinity speak of its properly like John Locke or Ayn Rand do? Does the Trinity speak of gripping “its hard-earned money” the way political conservatives do? Does the Trinity bureaucratize property the way violent socialists collectives did? Does the Trinity hold property in common privately?

It’s common for Christian conservatives to invoke the principle that “taxation is theft” and “the heart of the welfare state is theft.” This simply begs the question. It assumes an individualist view of property rights. Yes, if individualism is true, and the individual alone has an absolute claim on property, then taxation is theft. But then, so is God’s demand for the tithe and his gleaning laws. But, if God owns all our money, and we’re merely stewards of his property, we can’t automatically blurt “theft” when any transfers are required. We have to ask other questions first, about God’s use of his own property, delegated authorities, etc. If, let’s say, we have a crazy community that denies “that any of the things he possessed was his own” (Acts 4:32), then it’s harder and more complicated to generate a simplistic charge of theft.

“Only a capitalist system saved the suffering American settlers” writes Thomas DiLorenzo. But why? What was so magical about private property? The typical answer is that it avoided the free riding problem. Private property required “each individual himself bore the full consequences of any reductions in output” and each individual had “an incentive to increase his effort because he directly benefitted from his own labor.” In short, we say, self-interest trumped self-denial, and there’s no way of ever changing that. Humans must be polytheists forever. Christ can’t transform self-interest. Of course not.

Jones’s retelling of the story of the Plymouth colony is particularly damning.

Why were medieval monks able to sustain collective living for centuries but the Pilgrims only for the blink of an eye? The Pilgrims failed at collective living not because of the dictates of some unitarian, impersonal economics laws about self-interest. Their failure was much simpler than that. They lacked the habits and virtues of self-denial… these people were spiritual basket-cases, not Christian heroes. William Bradford had the gall to conclude, “Let none argue that this is due to human failing.” Seriously? Mammon was already deep in their bones.

Continuing on the mammon thread…

It seems that all the wicked rich people have disappeared from the face of the earth. What a relief. This is a tremendous development in the history of the world. They vanished a couple hundred years ago, and they won’t be back. As capitalist cheerleader John Schneider explained, “The truth is that in modern market economies the main way that people acquire wealth is not by taking it away from someone else, but by taking part in its CREATION. This is fundamentally different from the way wealth was acquired in the ancient world – and for the most part, it is what businesses and corporations do.” Yes, in the bad, old world, the Lord used his prophets to harangue the rich constantly. But those were the bad old days when people acquired wealth simply by “taking it away from someone else.” Now things are different. We think we’d be able to spot gross economic injustice easily, but what majority in the history of the world has ever been able to do that? Economic injustice always seems to turn invisible in the eyes of those responsible for it.

Jones goes on to define capitalism as something much closer to socialism and elite control that we usually realize or at least assume on paper. His position is that the “free market” is good, but that modern capitalism is not really the free market at all.

In chapter 17, Jones openly denounces our irrational and unchristian reverence for the U.S. military. If he made the Calvinists (of which he is one of course) mad a few chapters back, now he’s out going to makes some folks in the armed forces hot under the collar as well. Except that he uses numerous quotes from ex-soldiers and generals to back up his claims that there is often not anything honorable about most of America’s involvement in foreign affairs from Nicaragua to Iraq and beyond. He tells many stories, but this is a particularly good example:

In 1998, John Maresca, vice president of Unocal oil, testified before congress and called for pipeline that would transport oil southward through Afghanistan for 1040 miles to the Pakistan coast. Such a pipeline would cost about $2.5 billion and carry about 1 million barrels of oil per day. But there was a problem. Afghanistan was not friendly to this move. Marescal said, “Without peaceful settlement of the conflicts in the region, cross-border oil and gas pipelines are not likely to be built… The U.S. Government should us its influence to help find solution to all the regions conflicts. U.S. assistance in developing these new economies will be crucial to business success.” The George W. Bush administration developed war plans to invade Afghanistan long before the 9/11 attacks. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. bombing commenced. Coincidentally, the first U.S. Special Ambassador to Afghanistan was John J. Maresca, the vice president of Unocal. Four months after the bombing, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement for a new pipeline.

I have discussed this sort of thing on many occasions with a friend of mine in town who is writing his doctoral dissertation on the Persion Gulf War. He has become a bit of an expert on middle-east policy in the process. At the end of the day, why does the U.S. go to war? The answer is usually: Because some rich guys want us to. Seriously! I shouldn’t even need to say that there is absolutely zero that is Christ-like about that. Our soldiers may be strong and brave but I cannot declare this sort of service to be automatically sacred and good. The reason he brings all of this up is that our steadfast enthusiasm for war in conservative circles prevents us from considering many of who Jesus cared about the most. It’s an obstacle in the way of the cross.

Now, after all that, what are supposed to do? Jones doesn’t give a direct answer, but does devote three chapters to some suggested paths one might take to disrupt our service to mammon and follow this “way of the cross” that he has articulated.

He first looks at the example of a city set up in the late 4th century by Basil of Caesarea that had many of the best features of communal living and mercy ministries that we would want to have today – early hospitals, residences for the poor, and small factories and workshops. Jones argues that the CHURCH is the one who should be doing this sort of work, not individuals on one hand or state governments and corporations on the other hand. They each have their own place, but this sort of thing should be the church’s job. We have bungled these efforts in the past by making them either too small (and dependent on a handful of individuals) or too big and in bed with big power and big money. The Church, that is the local church, not the parachurch, needs to be at the heart of these ministries and communities to make them fly.

He looks briefly at several projects in the last few decades that are sometimes referred to as the “new monasticism”. While a lot of people are probably familiar with Shane Claiborne’s best-selling book on all of this from a few years ago, Jones mentions other communities that you probably haven’t heard of unless you have taken a much closer look at the movement. He doesn’t get into specifics in the space provided, but seems to think this sort of setup is a big step in the right direction. I would only add that I would like to see more kids – lots of kids – growing up spiritually healthy in these sorts of settings. I’m not interested in young twenty-somethings doing something cool for just a while. I want to see the whole age spectrum in these church/living models.

As alluded to earlier, he advises that Christian leaders need to bite the bullet and encourage their congregations to get out of the business of supporting the U.S. military’s activity overseas. (The same goes for the British army.) We have kingdom work to do and can’t be bothered to spend precious years shooting at the empire’s enemies.

Finally, Jones ends with a nudge in the direction of a more contemplative form of Christian devotion. This means, among other things, quiet prayer and meditation on the scriptures, praying the psalms, meals together, and most of the other things that Bonhoeffer advocated in Life Together. It means less cultivation of institutions, less envy of neighbors, and less media visibility. Does that sound a bit vague? Tough. It’s a challenging topic to discuss.

So why is this book different or better than some other works that point out the same problems and recommend some of the same answers? Jones writes from thoroughly within the Reformed tradition. He is coming from (and staying firmly in) what can be described as the neo-Calvinist evangelical movement in America. He’s draws on Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, but he’s not even close to swimming the Tiber to Rome. He is definitely no liberal, not even close. He’s not with the “emerging” church. He’s not an Anabaptist, again, not even close, despite being accused of becoming one on several occasions. In short, he is Reformed but always reforming. This book is going to be the most valuable and communicative to people in a similar situation themselves. I would count myself largely in that category.

I’ve tried to point out some of what I thought were the best parts of the book. Does it have any substantial weaknesses? Indeed. Some of the chapters are very strong and others a bit more flimsy and their points haphazardly argued. Some critics are going to be unhappy with how short some sections are and demand more footnotes. Others may think the piles of scriptural examples go on for far too long as they yearn for more statistics to prove the point. They will be disappointed. It’s mostly bible rather than stories or studies.

One negative reviewer on the review site Goodreads criticized Doug’s exegesis for lacking mastery of the original languages. This is perhaps a problem, but (and I’m going to expose myself to criticism for this one), I think that the holy scriptures, the gospels in particular, are fundamentally built, designed, and intended by God for vernacular translation. What that means is that being a Greek or Hebrew scholar is not necessary for a legitimate exegesis. In short, I think that tearing apart the original text is overrated. Those who would dismiss Jones’s message because he perhaps stretches some texts about Mammon a bit far are missing the larger message – to their own detriment.

Overall, I think the book is a great place to start, especially in the way Jones deals with issues peculiar to conservative evangelicism in America. If you grew up in a baptist church, your homeschool or Christian school textbook had you reading a fair amount of Jonathan Edwards, and you’ve never even considered NOT voting for the latest Republican presidential candidate, then this book is definitely for you. Take a break from what your reading now and hit this instead. Like visiting an orphanage in Guatemala or Uganda, it might throw a monkey wrench in your “worldview”.

Technology is rife with religious implications

On thing the European missionaries and the clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church shared was the assumption that culture and religion were intimately intertwined; that technology was embedded in culture; and, hence, that the adoption of foreign technology and the pursuit of “modernization” were processes rife with religious implications.

-Donald Crummey, The Politica of Moderization: Protestant and Catholic Missionaries in Modern Ethiopia

Just about everything is “rife with religious implications”. Philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously quipped in 1964 that “the medium is the message”. This is largely true and should not be ignored. The medium matters because it dramatically changes the message. You can’t repackage something in a wildly different form and assume that the content has stayed intact.

The gospel comes across a bit different in Zulu than it does in English – for better and worse. Planting a church-hospital combo in the jungle is different than just planting a church. On the one hand, the medical care is a very tangible and valuable ministry. On the other, the technology and doctors and pharmaceuticals are then closely linked (perhaps too closely) with the preaching and conversion. This is also why you can’t take a gospel hymn and perform it as heavy metal or hip-hop and then claim that it’s the same thing. Of course it’s not. The contents is like liquid – it has changed shape to fit it’s container.

Some containers are more appropriate than others for keeping the message intact when changing the context. We should choose the medium wisely and carefully. The zeitgeist should be ignored.

The old history of Christianity in Ethiopia

Meanwhile, a hundred years before St. Patrick arrived in Ireland…

With a Christian monarchy established within a decade or two of the baptism of Constantine the Great, and a first bishop consecrated by the Church father Athanasius not later than 350 AD, the evangelization of Ethiopia proceeded from north to south. This was mainly the result of indigenous efforts, supported in the early stages by Syrian monks who were rufugees rather than representatives of a sending Church. By 1500 the Christian message had been preached in most of present-day Ethiopia. Churches and monasteries had been built as far south as Arsi, Sidamo and Kefa. Some areas were again lost to Islam, by and large – as far as we know – through commercial penetration. Pagan practices and worship undoubtedly survived and reasserted themselves, overtly or in secret, as they did in Europe. On the other hand, a literate, ecclesiastical elite had not only translated the Bible and other early Christian literature into Gi’iz but also produced additional edifying literature, as well and legal and historical texts. There can be no doubt that by 1500 Christianity had deep roots in Ethiopian society, in the north and central parts in particular.

-Sven Rubenson summarizing Taddesse Tamrat, from Church and State in Ethiopia 1270-1527

The great auto-reformer: Scripture in the vernacular

Christianity is a form of indigenous empowerment by virtue of vernacular translation.
Ethnic self-preservation, it turns out, has a champion in missionary translation projects.
-Lamin Sanneh, Summoned from the Marin, p.217

In my studies over the past year in the history of Christian expansion in Africa, one thing has been become mightily clear.

Want to transform a culture? What do you do? Preach the gospel? Build churches? Build hospitals and schools? Dig wells? Protect them from war? Those are all good things but each requires an incredible amount of outside energy to be pumped into the system. Hospitals need a steady stream of super-skilled staff and equipment. Schools need teachers. Missionaries need an infusion of cash from far away to stay.

But one thing is like a magnificent perpetual motion machine – the translation of scripture. Translate the bible into the local language, give it’s propagation a little jump start and then step back as it spins like a whirlwind, quite literally out of control! Christianity has spread due to it’s ability to adapt itself to local cultures and the chief way it has done this is through vernacular translation – not just of the raw text, but of indigenous ideas too.

The gospel in the vernacular language is the great auto-reformer.

Some folks in the west get upset about the amount of syncretism that remains in these fresh new churches. Their theology is still a bit mixed up with some of their folk religion. I say: so what! I think it’s a small price to pay for the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ AND I think that if we are patient, those things will largely work themselves out in a few generations. The bulk of western Christian literature and understanding didn’t happen overnight and it can’t be transferred to them overnight either. Some of it is probably non-transferable, and that is maybe a good thing. With immediate access to the whole Bible and with the Holy Spirit having immediate access to them, their growth and maturity will continue. Let us pray that it does, as well as our own – in great measure.