Daily Lectionary Podcast – Nehemiah 1:1-2:10 and 1 Timothy 1:1-20

Nehemiah 1:1-2:10
1 Timothy 1:1-20
A spirituality of exile: prayer, fasting, bible reading; the continuing exile
The fulfillment of the sacrificial/temple practice
Making a shipwreck of faith, the importance practice of the faith

Inequality & Spirituality

Here is NPR with economist Tyler Cowen on his new book, Average is Over. The core of Cowen’s thesis is that we have become used to looking at things like the average or median wage to gauge the economy. In post-WW2 USA, and really in the US for most of its experience, the economy (GDP) grew and everyone got richer. Labor was always scarce, there was always the frontier, the competition was lying in smoking ruins allowing monopoly-like cartels that could share the wealth. All that is over. Outsized returns are now accruing to the 1% alone. Because of data tracking, which is really just getting started, we will identify the contributors easier. If you are talented it will become easier to get real rich. If you are not, well, robots and computers are going to replace you. The end result is increasing financial inequality. Not the 1% and the 99%, but to Cowan the 15% and the 85%.

There are two things that Cowen completely misses. Actually I don’t think he misses them so much as dismisses them as not credible. First, his explanation of happiness for a large group not in the 15%:

“Imagine a very large bohemian class of the sort that say, lives in parts of Brooklyn,” Cowen explains. “… It will be culturally upper or upper-middle class, but there will be the income of lower-middle class. They may have lives that are quite happy and rewarding, but they may not have a lot of savings. There will be a certain fragility to this existence.”

What does he mean by this? Well, I’ll take a stab. What he means is a class of poor enlightenment liberals. Let’s get even more explicit. A group that will largely practice self-restraint and late couple-pairing to raise their one child, but has no problem with: no-attachment sex, unlimited abortion, no-fault divorce and recreational drugs. Because they will have pseudo-prestigious (not real prestigious or they would be in the 15%) credentials they will be able to separate themselves from the riff-raff. They will socially amplify the difference by culturally associating with things the opposite of Monster Truck Rallies, say Shakespeare in the Park, which will be funded by a grant from the NEA in conjunction with the ABC foundation.

The first thing that Cowen misses is that we’ve seen that world before many times. A real power upper-crust, a cultural power broader based club like group with exclusionary behaviors and markers, and the people of the land. In the New Testament that equates to the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the crowds. What was the big problem with Jesus? He challenged and made fun of the Pharisees pseudo-prestigious markers. He ate with tax collectors and sinners – the equivalent of going to a monster truck rally. What eventually breaks out in such a world is Mary’s Magnificat – “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy (Luke 1:51-54).” That has happened many times.

The second thing that Cowen misses or discounts to nothing is the Spiritual understanding of prior American generations. Is it a co-incidence that great inequality is emerging at the same general time of a great falling away from Christian teaching among the real ruling class? Cowen is an economist and it makes sense to explain to concentration as economic rationality. Talented people are more in demand, so their pay has become outsized. That is part of the happy justification for actually using position to extract the rents – I deserve it, I’m a meritocrat. Did not previous generations have such justifications? (The answer is yes). Sometimes they acted on them, but in the west they were typically bounded by Christian teaching if just the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) or the Rich Man and his barns (Luke 12:13-21).

In a world oppressed by the rich and the oral law (your credit score record combined with all that big data), where the bread and circuses have lost their enchantment but we continue to rut around anyway because that is all there it, where society has become highly segmented class wise – hear this proclamation: Christ has come to set you free. There is neither Harvard nor University of Michigan, Temp employee nor Junior exec, beta-bohemian or alpha-elite. For you are all one in Jesus Christ. In Christ you are heirs. Through the Spirit you can live a life not of passing moments like envy and drunkeness and orgies and the like, but of of love, joy, peace, self-control. Because Christ has set you free.

Think that might preach?

The Trouble With Spirituality

Every once in a while you run across one of those article that makes you feel like Kurtz – “The Horror, The Horror”. Or on a more modest scale simply say, “how in the world did this person allow this to be published in their own names?!?”

The Atlantic (The Atlantic?!?) published this one in the health(?!?) section. The headline and most of the article are about just how much it costs “to find God” recounting from the author’s life experience of everything from yoga to spirituality retreats. The last paragraph captures the horror for me…

But in the end, shouldn’t the cost of finding God be priceless? As in, free? Of course. But I’m not paying to find God. I’m paying to remove the obstacles to finding God, or universal energy, or however you define the thing we’re all seeking. I know I don’t need my Mastercard to find it, but it sure can open the doors to places and things that help me explore myself and the meaning of my existence.

It is hard to know where to start, but I’ll go to that last line – “…open doors…that help me explore myself and the meaning of my existence.” That right there is the trouble with spirituality as currently defined by the culture at large. It is a code word for narcissism. The gospel would say to such a person – “you must deny yourself and take up your cross daily (Luke 9:23).” It would also say, “whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it (Luke 17:33).” Down at the bedrock of the gospel is the negation of the author’s private quest. She wants to find the meaning in her existence. The truth is that our existence is meaningless, unless built on the foundation of Christ. Only what is built on Christ will last.

And you could hear that for free every Sunday and sometimes the days in between. If you have ears to hear. But to those who have, more will be given, to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. (Luke 8:18, 19:26).

An Inside Look

LSB_Icon_hymn_bookThe Christian Century published a couple of articles on the PC-USA’s production of a new hymnal. This is an interesting essay basically defending the publication of hymnals. This is the more interesting story told about the making of it. As the first articles notes, there have been a series of new hymnals produced by denominations in the last 10 years including the LCMS’s Lutheran Service Book. The first article does a fair job of defending the production of a hymnal, although the entry paragraph is one of the worst metaphors I’ve seen in that I don’t think it makes any sense. The author was obviously trying to get to the concept that updating hymnals roughly every generation is a necessary thing. Just because the books in the pews are physically fine doesn’t mean that they serve the spiritual purpose any longer. Instead of reaching for a technology analogy I would have reached for something less ephemeral like maybe the family. Family roles change. We learn new roles, give up some responsibilities, take on other and see others in a completely new light. As the author eventually moves onto, a hymnal shapes a people spiritually over time. It also needs to be shaped by that people. New hymnals allow for new generations to sing to the Lord a new song. Speaking of the Lutheran Service Book, that is one the best things that it has done. The hymn editors did a marvelous job adding “newer” hymns. They also did a marvelous job letting others slip away. For the LCMS this was necessary as the last generational baton pass was dropped. Many had still been using a hymnal produced in 1941. Some had faithfully taken the botched job of 1981 only to find it wanting. And in the confusion created, many wandered outside of the common book. It is hard to form or maintain a Lutheran Spirituality without a common set of hymns.

But the second essay is the more interesting one. One paragraph I believe emphasizes the growing divide between churches that place themselves with the great tradition (what Lewis would call Mere Christianity) and those denominations that are declaring a break (even if they don’t admit it) with that church. (Roman Catholics divide over this around Vatican 2 between those “reading the council in continuity” and those “reading the council as a rupture from that continuity’s summed faults”.) The author of the second piece highlights the discussion and vote around one of the newer hymns they originally wanted to include.

Even more sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012. We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

Because we were no longer meeting as a committee, our discussions had to occur through e-mail; this may explain why the “In Christ Alone” example stands out in my mind—the final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.

Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.

All involved agreed that this new song (part of the newer praise song canon) expressed a deep and even core expression of the work of Christ on the cross. The hymn is a strong statement of substitutionary atonement. The hymn committee first wanted to delete that understanding replacing the wrath at sin with a vague reference to love. When that was blocked by the hymn writer, the committee voted to excluded it. Substitutionary atonement given modern meaningful expression would not be part of the new PC-USA hymnal. A Presbyterian spirituality formed by this new song collection will not express how Christians for at least 1000 years have primarily understood the cross. And that was exactly the argument of the exclusionary side. It would be bad pastoral practice, “a disservice to this educational mission”, to perpetuate substitutionary atonement. That is a rupture.

If I was driving deep at this I would ask why? Why is a clear expression of substitutionary atonement so offensive that is must be driven out? I would argue that it takes the law seriously. It takes seriously that God commanded certain things that can’t just be forgotten or endlessly twisted. Any reminder of this to a people involved in redefining sin is an offense.

Are there other perfectly biblical expressions of the atonement? Yes, absolutely. Christ the victor finds wonderful expression in that most Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress”. But we should realize that decisions made physical in books like Lutheran Service Book and the other new hymnals are making permanent and wide the rupture or gulf. And atonement, part and parcel of justification, as Luther said about the Augsburg Confession, “the entire church stand or falls on this article”. Erasing the tradition on atonement could be said to be erasing the gospel itself.