Wednesday, November 14, 2012

AAR/SBL: See You in Chicago

For some people in the field, the annual meeting of AAR/SBL is a stressor: presentations, meetings, interviews, schmoozing, being "on" without a break. The way I see it, it's a professional excuse to spend one weekend a year in the same place as friends who live in dozens of cities around the country, with the added bonus that, concurrently, there happen to be a few interesting papers being read about God. Also, the book room.

I haven't had time to look through the conference program, though others have already combed through and found some good sessions. As it happens, this is my first year to present; so for those interested, I'll be reading a paper on Monday, 1:00-3:30 (better known as "AAR prime time"), as part of the Christian Systematic Theology section on "Community and Hierarchy," with Gerard Loughlin presiding. The paper is titled "An Undefensive Presence: The Mission and Identity of the Church in Kathryn Tanner and John Howard Yoder." Naturally, it continues my habit of putting Yoder into conversation with every theologian ever.

I'm excited about this year's meeting, if only because I've never been to Chicago before. Feel free to mention in the comments your own presentation or other interesting ones. See you soon.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Robert Jenson on "original" versus "christological-ecclesial" readings of the Old Testament

"There is a growing consensus among biblical scholars who have some concern for the churchly relevance of their studies: indeed the church and her exegetes must somehow read the Old Testament as prophecy of the events the New Testament narrates and comments, as anticipation of the gospel. For an obvious fact becomes ever more irksome: if the Old Testament is first and foremost a record of ancient Israel's faith, it unsurprisingly turns out to be indeed just that, the artifact of a religious community that is other than the church, and moreover is not now extant. We will read the Old Testament from the New or we will not be able to read these texts as Scripture at all. This new agreement goes, however, little further. Somehow -- it is now often agreed -- we have to read the Old Testament christologically and pneumatologically. But even this repentant scholarship has left that 'somehow' undetermined.

"Scholarship's modern inability to resolve that 'somehow' results, I propose, from a certain distinction that we all tend to make, that indeed is so ingrained in our habits as to seem inevitable. When it is proposed that Old Testament texts have a christological or ecclesial sense, many biblical scholars will now agree, but this sense will then be anxiously and promptly contrasted with another sense which the texts are supposed to have 'in themselves' or 'originally' or 'for their own time.' The official exegetes will now not often simply brush off proposal of christological and ecclesial readings of the Old Testament. But they will still quickly say, 'On the other hand, we must not override their original sense' or something to that effect, and those of us who are not certified exegetes will more or less automatically concede the point. The trouble is: when reading Old Testament texts christologically or ecclesially is contrasted with another reading which is said to take them 'in themselves,' or in their 'original' sense, the churchly reading inevitably appears as an imposition on the texts, even if an allowable one. Christological or ecclesial readings will be tolerated for homiletical purposes, or for such faintly suspect enterprises as systematic theology, but are not quite the real thing.

"We need to question this all too automatic distinction. The place to start is by observing some obvious but generally overlooked hermeneutical facts: an author's intention or a community of first readers' reading is plainly not identical with the texts 'themselves' or with an 'original' import. Any author constantly interprets her own writing -- before, during, and after formulating text. We later readers are not the only ones with a particular hermeneutic and with resultant interpretations of the texts an author produces; the author has his own, and these are no more identical with the texts themselves than are ours. Moreover, first readers are just that and no more: they are not pure receivers of meaning but first readers, which is to say, the first readers to have a chance to impose their hermeneutical prejudices. Therefore, what is really on the table is not the church's christological-ecclesial reading and a reading of the texts in some original entity but the church's christological-ecclesial reading and the author's and first readers' equally problematic readings.

"So soon as we see that these are the readings to be considered, we are liberated to ask: Which of them grasps the texts 'in themselves' or as they are 'originally'? And the answer to that question is not necessarily that the author's or first readers' reading is original, not if there is someone in the pictures besides the author, the first readers and us. Not when the text is supposed to be Scripture, so that God the Spirit is in the picture. It was -- I now have come to see -- a function of the old doctrine of inspiration to trump the created author with prior agents, the Spirit and the Word, and to trump the alleged first readers with prior readers, with indeed the whole diachronic people of God, preserved as one people through time by that same Spirit. And then we may very well take the christological-ecclesial sense of an Old Testament text as precisely the 'original' sense, the sense which it has 'in itself,' if in the particular case we have grounds to suppose that the christological-ecclesiological sense responds to the intention and reception of this primary agent and these primary readers."

--Robert W. Jenson, On the Inspiration of Scripture (Delhi, NY: ALPB Books, 2012), 30-32

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Lure of Political Eschatology: On Remembering to Remember that the World is in God's Hands, Not the President's

Four years ago, I wrote a post bearing the same title as this one, which I offered as a gentle reminder for Christians who were overly anxious about the supposed disastrous state of affairs that would occur if one or the other presidential candidate were elected. Reading back through it, I realized that I need only replace "McCain" with "Romney," and the relevance of the piece would be entirely undiminished. It is both sad and unsurprising that this is so: Americans (and American Christians) spy a precipice lying behind every election, just waiting to swallow up the universe. Christians should know better. Read below for why.

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Following the presidential race this year (or any year), I've noticed an inevitable trend that peaks its head with marked regularity, but is especially noticeable this year. It is an offshoot of what I will call political eschatology: the ongoing, pervasive belief that the fate of the world (at the very least, the nation) hangs on the outcome of the presidential election.

And in reading political commentary on both sides, surveying bumper stickers, and listening to everyday people talk about the candidates, you might just buy into the fact that the world will fall apart if America does not make the right choice.

Into this situation and these assumptions, then, the church bears good, if difficult, news: the world does not depend on America for sustenance, provision, life, virtue, or need; for those things the world depends on God.

I realize for many Christians that statement may not seem like anything new; however, the way people -- often Christians -- speak about this election belies trust in anything other than the American political process to hold together the fragile state of the global situation. That is not to say that the election of Obama or McCain Romney would not entail profound differences, or that these differences are not serious enough to cause one to vote with hope one way or the other. Rather, in remembering both God's promise to not forsake his creation and his calling of a people to offer the world an alternative to its rebellion, Christians cannot give into the alluring temptation that any nation is the key to holding the world in balance. The church has a better name than keeping-chaos-at-bay for what God has given us in Jesus: shalom (Hebrew for "peace" or "wholeness"). And the shalom of the people of God cannot be left behind simply because we have forgotten to remember that in Jesus God has given us a gift greater than military strength, or democracy, or political freedom.

So let conservative Christians affirm: if Obama is elected, the world will not end. The economy will not self-destruct, terrorists will not overtake the government, the judiciary will not dissolve the rule of law.

And let liberal Christians affirm: if McCain Romney is elected, the world will not end. The poor will not be forgotten, nukes will not be launched at a moment's whim, a new global ice age will not be inaugurated.

For the truth is indeed good news (and let all Christians affirm!): in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, the world did end. But in Christ's resurrection the world has been made anew, the shalom of God's Spirit has been breathed onto God's people, and the "end" which will come with Jesus's return will not be destruction and finality, but restoration and renewal, forgiveness and reconciliation, redemption and new creation.

This is good news, because we, the church, do not have to worry about what will happen come the first Tuesday of November, for we know that "the God who moves the sun and the stars is the same God who was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth," the crucified and resurrected one. That is, we know that neither Obama nor McCain Romney will put the world to rights, and neither can offer to the world the shalom of God.

And that is okay. But we will not do either candidate any good with messianic hope or eschatological doom. Instead, we must be patient -- that most important virtue of God's people -- and rest easy knowing that God is in control, and the President of the United States of America is not.