Matthew 4:12-17

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Matthew 4

12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The late historian Larry Hurtado wrote a fascinating little book entitled Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? The book seeks to answer that question. Why indeed, given the hardships that Christians suffered in the first three centuries would they choose to become Christians? One answer, according to Hurtado, was that the early Christians proposed an idea that pagan Romans had almost certainly never heard of. Hurtado explains:

In high pagan piety to be sure, particular gods could be praised as benign and generous, but it is hard to find references to any deities either loving humans or being loved by them in Roman-era pagan discourse (setting aside the myths of the erotic adventures of various male deities with human females). As MacMullen noted, loving gods or love for gods simply did not figure in pagan piety.

            So is it too much to suggest that the early Christian portrayal of “God” was an attractive and affecting factor for converts? From the frequency of references to the Christian deity as both all-powerful and powerfully loving, it seems to me entirely plausible. In a world of many deities, early Christianity proclaimed one almighty deity in absolute sovereignty over all, beneath whom all other beings were mere creatures, unworthy of cultic reverence. And this all-powerful sovereign deity was moved by a powerful love, so Christian teaching claimed, and so sought and offered a direct relationship with people. I suspect that this was heady stuff, and certainly very different from notions about the gods in the wider religious environment of the time. It was incredible to some, and, I suggest, powerfully winsome for some others.[1]

What many pagans found remarkable and, according to Hurtado, attractive, was the surprising idea that this one great God would actually love human beings! “Love” was not something normally attributed to the gods, so this was a strange and exhilarating thought. And Christians did indeed proclaim this…a lot! They were constantly speaking of God’s love for human beings, a love most definitively expressed in Jesus.

Matthew 4 ends Matthew’s introductory section and launches us into the ministry of Jesus. Here we see His loving intent on full display, His desire to call lost and suffering humanity to Himself.

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Genesis 27 (Part 1)

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Genesis 27

1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called Esau his older son and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “Behold, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me, and prepare for me delicious food, such as I love, and bring it to me so that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die.” Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game and prepare for me delicious food, that I may eat it and bless you before the Lord before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my voice as I command you. Go to the flock and bring me two good young goats, so that I may prepare from them delicious food for your father, such as he loves. 10 And you shall bring it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” 11 But Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man. 12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him and bring a curse upon myself and not a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, bring them to me.” 14 So he went and took them and brought them to his mother, and his mother prepared delicious food, such as his father loved. 15 Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. 16 And the skins of the young goats she put on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. 17 And she put the delicious food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob. 18 So he went in to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.” 20 But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” 22 So Jacob went near to Isaac his father, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 And he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands. So he blessed him. 24 He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” 25 Then he said, “Bring it near to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it near to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” 27 So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said, “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed! 28 May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. 29 Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” 30 As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, Esau his brother came in from his hunting. 31 He also prepared delicious food and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me.” 32 His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Then Isaac trembled very violently and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? Yes, and he shall be blessed.” 34 As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. 39 Then Isaac his father answered and said to him: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. 40 By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck.” 41 Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 But the words of Esau her older son were told to Rebekah. So she sent and called Jacob her younger son and said to him, “Behold, your brother Esau comforts himself about you by planning to kill you. 43 Now therefore, my son, obey my voice. Arise, flee to Laban my brother in Haran 44 and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— 45 until your brother’s anger turns away from you, and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will send and bring you from there. Why should I be bereft of you both in one day?” 46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?”

In his novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”[1] Genesis 27 is a chronicle of one such unhappy family. It is the story of how God worked through a family, yes, but it is also a story of the deep flaws of the family through whom He worked.

Genesis 27 is, in many ways, a picture of dysfunction. “There are no heroes in this story,” writes R. Kent Hughes, “only sinners.”[2] That is true enough. And we are going to explore the foibles of this family. Even so, let us remember that cracked vessels are the only kinds of vessels God has to work with in the human race and, amazingly, he works through this flawed family just as He works through you and me. Consider now the flaws of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau. Today we will consider Isaac and Rebekah.

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Genesis 26:12-35

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Genesis 26

12 And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, 13 and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. 14 He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him. 15 (Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father.) 16 And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.” 17 So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. 18 And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19 But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20 the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him. 21 Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah. 22 And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” 23 From there he went up to Beersheba. 24 And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.” 25 So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well. 26 When Abimelech went to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army, 27 Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” 28 They said, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you. So we said, let there be a sworn pact between us, between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, 29 that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.” 30 So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. 31 In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths. And Isaac sent them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. 32 That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug and said to him, “We have found water.” 33 He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day. 34 When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite to be his wife, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, 35 and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.

Sometimes it seems like you just cannot get a win. Think about it: when we are disobedient we are rightly robbed of all joy and peace. But when we are obedient the devil attacks us with greater ferocity. In other words, it may appear sometimes that the Christian life is one of great struggle: to repent when we disobey and to endure when we obey!

To say that is to be too pessimistic, of course, for the mercies of God are ever available to His children and, indeed, Jesus promises us rest in Matthew 11:

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

This must be understood and grasped: Jesus offers us rest! There is joy and peace in the Christian life. Even so, it is telling that immediately after verse 28 He says this:

29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus gives us rest, yes, but it is in the midst of carrying His “yoke” and “burden.” And while these are “easy” and “light,” they are a yoke and burden nonetheless. What is more, the dominant theme of discipleship involves carrying the cross, as we see in Matthew 16:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

What this means, then, is that there is rest to be found in Jesus but it is oftentimes a paradoxical rest that comes in the midst of struggle and spiritual attack. This is pictured nicely in the remainder of Genesis 26 in the trials that Isaac undergoes in the midst of his being blessed by God. We will consider the ways that Isaac was harassed and attacked while he walked with God as a picture of how we are or will be attacked when we do the same.

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Matthew 4:1-11

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Matthew 4

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

Some years ago there was a company called Devil Man Skateboards in El Segundo, California. They put an advertisement in Thrasher magazine asking skate enthusiasts to sign away their souls to the devil and send the certificate in to them. The statement that people were asked to sign read: “I, the undersigned, do hereby give possession of my soul to the devil for eternity, for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.”[1]

I suspect that the company was trying to be shocking and edgy for the mainly young skaters who purchased their skateboards. They certainly got the attention they were looking for. Regardless of their motive, it cannot be denied that, in point of fact, that is exactly what the devil would like. He would like for us to sign our souls over to him “for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.”

Of course, the devil does not usually tempt us with a blatant certificate to that effect, but that is the ultimate goal nonetheless: the enslavement of ourselves to him. That was certainly what he was after in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. What was at stake in that episode, recorded in Matthew 4, was nothing less than the survival and salvation of the human race. Had Christ bowed to Satan, all would have been for nought and ruin.

Let us consider this amazing scene.

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Genesis 26:6-11

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Genesis 26

6 So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. 9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.’” 10 Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” 11 So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

William James’ book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature which was originally presented as the Gifford Lectures on natural theology in 1901 and 1902, is one of the most significant and famous books presented on religion in American history. Even so, James himself was not a believer and had, to put it mildly, a very vague notion of God. His most explicit account of his religious views is in a letter written in 1904 to psychologist James Leuba:

My personal position is simple. I have no living sense of commerce with a God. I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly. The divine, for my active life, is limited to impersonal and abstract concepts which, as ideals, interest and determine me, but do so but faintly in comparison with what a feeling of God might effect, if I had one.[1]

There is something so very tragic about this. That a keen mind like James’ should only conceive of God in terms of “impersonal and abstract concepts” that “determine” him only “faintly” is truly tragic, for if the scripture reveals anything about God it is that He certainly cannot be reduced to “impersonal and abstract concepts.” On the contrary, God is personal. God is relational.

In scripture this can be seen in God’s interaction with human beings: His giving of laws and commands, for instance, or, more to our point, His establishment of a covenant and a people. Ultimately, the coming of Jesus shatters James’ conception of God to smitherines for the coming of Jesus reveals God’s loving and close heart as well as His intent to save humanity. Jesus is no impersonal or abstract concept!

No, God is relational and it is because of this that He calls us into relationship with Him. One of the ways this manifests itself is in His call for us to be obedient, for us to follow Him. Or, we might say, the relational nature of God can be seen in how disobedience disrupts the harmony of our lives and casts us into a chaos of various manifestations. Disobedience is disruptive to relationship and, inwardly, it is disruptive to the peace that should reign in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

This can be seen in the sad episode of Isaac’s deceit of Abimelech in Gerar. Having just shown amazing faith in obeying God and staying in Gerar and not going to Egypt, Isaac, ever Abraham’s son, now has a pitiful low point of disobedience. And, like Abraham, it involves fear and his wife.

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Matthew 3:13-17

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Matthew 3

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Gregory of Nazianzus was the Archbishop of Constantinople in the 300s AD. He is widely considered to be one of the truly great minds of the church. It is fascinating, then, to see a real show of genuine emotion in him. I say “fascinating” because sometimes some of the writings of the church fathers feel so very heavy and dry. But I would like to show you what Gregory looks like when he is animated and enthused! The occasion is a sermon in which he tells his church that, having finished their Christmas celebrations, they are now going to turn to another exciting event in the life of Jesus. Gregory’s enthusiasm can hardly be contained. Let us hear him:

We recently celebrated the feast of the Lord’s birth…[in which] earth and heaven participated. Together we ran after the star…with the magi we fell and worshiped…with the shepherds light shone around us…and with the angels we glorified him…With Simeon we embraced him ourselves…and with Anna, the patient old woman, we freely returned thanks to God…Thanks be to the one who, as a stranger, is coming to his own…because he glorified the stranger.

But now there is another deed of Christ before us, another mystery. I am unable to control my excitement! I am becoming inspired! Almost like John, I proclaim good news (Matt 3:1), if not as a forerunner, but as a man from the desert! Christ is illuminated; let us be enlightened together! Christ is baptized…let us descend together, so that we might be raised together. Jesus is baptized…[1]

What is it that has Gregory so excited? What is this other event that he seems to put alongside Christmas? It is the baptism of Jesus!

Perhaps you are confused. Perhaps you would say that, yes, the baptism of Jesus is important, of course, but exciting? Honestly, have you ever felt this animated about the baptism of Jesus? Maybe we should!

Gregory was fired up because he understood that the baptism of Jesus was extremely important and carried with it profound truths and beautiful implications. And, in truth, Gregory is right! We should be excited about the baptism of Jesus. Our lack of excitement really just reveals how we have failed to truly comprehend what is going on here, what this baptism means. So let us ask: what does the baptism of Jesus mean?

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Genesis 26:1-6

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Genesis 26

1 Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines.And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” So Isaac settled in Gerar. 

It is surely one of the great ironies of the book of Genesis that the child promised to Abraham and Sarah—that waited for, prayed for, agonized over, promised child—would ultimately, upon his arrival, never really play the leading man in any major biblical scene. He is present in critical scenes (i.e., Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice him in Genesis 22), but he is never really given many action or speaking roles. In fact, Genesis 26 is the only real exception (except for when he intercedes for Rebekah in one verse of Genesis 25). Old Testament scholar Robert Alter points out that “this chapter is the only one in which Isaac figures as an active protagonist. Before, he was a bound victim; after, he will be seen as a bamboozled blind old man.”[1]

It is a curious thing. Even so, what we see in Isaac’s screen time in Genesis 26 is something to behold. Simply put, we see what we saw in Abraham: a man of big faith and big follies. It will be seen that Isaac’s role in 26 is quite important, however, for in our chapter we see God communicating the covenant promises to Isaac and we see in Isaac a model both of what to do and what not to do as an heir of the divine promise! The first six verses of Genesis 26 contain a positive and vitally important lesson.

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E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien’s Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible

19094149Written in 2012, Richards’ and O’Brien’s [R&O hereafter] Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is a bit of a mixed bag though, overall, I found it very thought-provoking and helpful. Let me say at the outset that Brandon is a personal friend and I have the utmost respect for him, for his mind, for his ministry, and for his scholarship. He’s a lot smarter dude than I’ll ever be, that’s for sure! I was honored to interview him recently for an episode of “Quarantine Theology: Conversations with Theologians, Historians, and Old and New Testament Scholars,” and I have reviewed other of his books here and here.

To be sure, the good of this volume certainly outweighs the perplexing. R&O are concerned that Western readers of scripture understand just how much our assumptions, our biases, our preunderstandings, our philosophical outlook, and our presuppositions shape how we read scripture. Simply put, we often misread scripture with Western eyes and essentially impose upon the text concepts and ideas that would have been foreign to the original authors and hearers. “We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience” (p. 11).

That is true. (In saying this, by the way, O’Brien articulates an idea that he will return to again in Not From Around Here, linked above.) One of the operational premises of the book can be found in this statement on page 12:

There is no purely objective biblical interpretation. This is not postmodern relativism. We believe truth is truth. But there’s no way around the fact that our cultural and historical contexts supply us with habits of mind that lead us to read the Bible differently than Christians in other cultural and historical contexts.

R&O’s assurance that this “is not postmodern relativism” is important, for there are more than enough examples of hermeneutical approaches that are so suspicious as to become functionally nihilistic. This is not what R&O are up to and any fair reading of their work will show this to be the case. No, R&O believe there is such a thing as meaning and they believe that the meaning or meanings of scripture can be ascertained. They are simply arguing in this book that the idea that we in the West read scripture from some utopian and pristine epistemological vantage point of unveiled and pure vision is a delusion. Put another way, we might say that one of the reasons why we see now “through a glass dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12) is that the glass is smudged over with our own Western cultural baggage. To take that metaphor to the next step, R&O are asking that at least that aspect of the dimmed glass be acknowledged and that the process of addressing this be undertaken.

The core conviction that drives this book is that some of the habits that we readers from the West (the United States, Canada and Western Europe) bring to the Bible can blind us to interpretations that the original audience and readers in other cultures see quite naturally. (p. 15)

And what, we might ask, is the big deal? So what if our cultural assumptions cause us to miss a nuance here or there. No, R&O argue, the issue is much bigger than that. First, it’s not just subtle nuances at stake. Sometimes it is the fundamental meaning of certain passages that is at stake. What is more:

If our cultural blind spots keep us from reading the Bible correctly, then they can also keep us from applying the Bible correctly. (p. 17)

Yes. That would certainly seem to be a very real possibility. The reality is that much is at stake in getting this right.

The book is R&O’s effort to prove their thesis by giving practical examples of ways in which our Western eyes cause us to misread scripture. On the whole, they do this admirably. Their “core conviction” is correct and the book is a success in that they do indeed show it to be so. They demonstrate, for instance, how Western assumptions about time fail to appreciate the kairos/chronos distinction the biblical writers knew and utilized. They demonstrate how Western emphases on certain sins (i.e., sexual sins) cause us to miss actions and attitudes that ancient people would have seen as equally if not more sinful (i.e., economic sins, greed, etc.)

In other words, one of the ways Westerners routinely misread instructions about modesty in the Bible is by assuming sexual modesty is of greater concern than economic modesty. (p. 43)

They demonstrate how we miss certain realities that would have been and still are abundantly clear to people whose lives more closely reflect the lives of ancient people in an agrarian society (i.e., the famine in the story of the Prodigal  Son—a very interesting section of this book, I must say!). They demonstrate how Western virtues like punctuality, savings, and efficiency are in many ways just that—Western—and that our emphasizing of these can cause us to miss alternative ways of thinking that are often extolled in the pages of scripture.

Those are just some examples of the ground that R&O cover, and they cover a lot of ground! There are some fascinating insights in this book that correct misunderstandings I have both had and preached! For instance:

So what was it about the Cushites that went without being said in the ancient Near East? The Cushites were not demeaned as a slave race in the ancient world; they were respected as highly skilled soldiers. It is more likely that Miriam and Aaron thought Moses was being presumptuous by marrying above himself. That makes sense of the tone of the passage. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they whined. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2). In other words: Moses is not the only prophet here. Who does he think he is? (p. 61)

Well. I did NOT know that. I have projected my own understanding on this passage for years and have argued that Miriam’s and Aaron’s great problem with Moses’ wife was her skin color. Apparently that is not so. Here’s another fascinating insight:

Paul struggles for a Greek word to describe the fruit (singular) of the Spirit. He describes it as a “love-joy-peace-patience-kindness-goodness-faithfulness-gentleness-self-control kind of fruit” (Gal 5:22). Paul is not giving us a list of various fruits, from which we may pick a few. Rather, he gives us a list of words that circle around the one character of a Spirit-filled life he is trying to describe. (pp. 74-75)

Well! That right there will ruin a nine-part sermon series, won’t it? I also really appreciated the section on how the Western emphasis on privacy causes a real disconnect between us and much of the world even today! Richards’ examples in this regard were very interesting, especially the story of the two Indonesian men who both owned a great deal of property but who built their houses right beside each other on the property line so that they would not be lonely (p. 77). One more example. I thought the section on collectivist cultures, then and now, was very helpful and I think it will help me better grasp some of the collectivist and “household” portions of scripture.

Duane Elmer, a professor of missions and intercultural studies, explains in his book Cross-Cultural Connections that when he shared Christ with Asian adults, he “was constantly told that they could not make a decision to follow Christ without asking a parent, uncle, aunt or all three.” At first he thought this was an evasive maneuver, a ruse to avoid making the hard decision of faith. Over time he realized that this is simply how collectivist cultures work. People “do not make major decisions without talking it over with the proper authority figures in their extended family.” This is hard for us Westerners to understand. We believe they are simply doing what the authority figure(s) said and not making the decision for themselves. This is not necessarily so. My (Randy’s) Asian friend speaks of his conversion this way: “My father is wiser than I am. If he says Jesus is better, then I know Jesus is better.” My friend has a faith as strong and rooted as mine. His certitude about Jesus came a different way than mine, but it is as firm. When the wise matriarch Lydia decided Paul’s god was best, her household was convinced as well (Acts 16:14-15). (pp. 104-105)

So, yeah, this is great stuff. This is needed stuff. I marked up a lot of this book to file, remember, and recall. Yet I have at some questions as well. I want to be clear that some of my concern in a few areas is not because I necessarily know the answers to my questions but rather that some of my questions were recurring. Some of my concerns are not even really concerns. They are more like agitations.

For instance, there were too many stories about Indonesia. Mind you, I highlighted probably 75% of these stories because they were fascinating and because Richards’ time and experiences in Indonesia were indeed helpful for advancing the idea that there are a number of significant differences in the ways that people elsewhere in the world think. And, yes, it would seem to me that the people of Indonesia with and among whom Richards lived and worked for I gather a significant time almost certainly inhabit a thought world more akin to that of, say, a first century person than a modern American does. So I get the strategy. However, there were so many Indonesia stories that through the last quarter of the book I began to feel that Richards was resting a bit easily on what appeared to me to be a possible assumption that Indonesian culture and, again, first century culture were directly analogous. I hasten to say that I have no doubt whatsoever that Richards would quickly say that this is not the case and that it is more the case that those two cultures overlap more than do our own,  but I am talking about the impression that the weight of so many illustrations had on me. And, finally, I am a bit irritable by nature, so, I do admit, I started to see so many Indonesia stories as almost a bit of a literary tick. But I do know that’s unfair of me…

Every now and then I found some of the points in the book a bit forced as well. Take, for instance, R&O’s argument that people in honor/shame cultures are responding in some ways more to public shaming than to a Westernized concept of the internal conscience. They argue that this was the case with David in their interesting and, at point, curious retelling of the David and Bathsheba story.

If we assume David thought like a Westerner with an introspective conscience, we’re likely to miss the point altogether. (p. 127)

I have no doubt this is true to an extent (i.e., that Western readers miss the honor/shame dynamics and the ways that God utilized them) and I found this section helpful. I just wonder if it was perhaps a bit overplayed or maybe made a bit too neat and tidy?  For instance, I found it interesting that R&O, in their lengthy consideration of David and Bathsheba and in light of the point they were advancing, never mention Psalm 32, a text that, at least on the surface, might seem to evidence something like an internalized conscience after all:

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Yes, I am aware that we are not completely sure of either the Davidic authorship of Psalm 32 or of this psalm’s connection to David and Bathsheba (though many argue that it is). Neither point is necessary to see Psalm 32 as a possible nuance to R&O’s unpacking of conscience/shame-and-honor. Also, I am fully aware that R&O are not arguing that ancient people did not have consciences, and I likewise have no doubt that they would have very good responses as to what Psalm 32 is and is not saying. Even so, the point of shame/honor as the driving force in matters of conviction and behavior was stressed enough that texts like this likely came to the mind of at least some of their readers as it did to mine. I would have liked to see some interaction with it.

Perhaps my biggest concern with the book was the section on “rules” vs. “relationships.” To summarize, R&O are arguing that Western people tend to like laws and lists that they deem inviolable and they apply mechanistically to all people and before which no exceptions are allowed. Many non-Western people, however, are not so rigid, prioritizing relationships instead and having a more fluid approach to rules and laws. A few quotes to demonstrate:

In the West, rules must apply to everyone, and they must apply all the time. In the ancient world, rules did not seem to require such universal compliance. (p. 168)

To the non-Western mind, it seems, a law is more a guideline. (p. 170)

Our tendency to emphasize rules over relationship and correctness over community means that we are often willing to sacrifice relationships on the altar of rules. (p. 173)

We are called to “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). Even after two thousand years, we are still uncomfortable with Paul’s law-free gospel. (p. 173)

We Westerners should also likely consider being less rigid about the rules we read in Scripture. (p. 174)

Richards concludes this chapter like this:

I (Randy) remind my students that one of the perks of being sovereign is that you get to do what you want. In fact, it often seems as if God is sovereign over everything except his rules. Like the Medes and the Persians, we seem to insist upon God being bound to his own rules. In Indonesia, I learned that one of the major responsibilities of the person “in charge” of an office is to determine when to make exceptions. Rules apply except when the one in charge says otherwise. Westerners might consider this arbitrary; many non-Western Christians consider this grace. Fees apply to everybody, unless the manager thinks someone really can’t afford it. Then he makes an exception. (p. 174)

Now, R&O clearly are not antinomians and they clearly are not trying to smuggle some sort of moral license into the faith. That would be an utterly uncharitable reading. And, they are no-doubt correct: the Western minds probably does think more in terms of stark categories of compliance or disobedience, at least theoretically (in practice we love exceptions so far as we are the ones being excepted). And, yes, who can deny that rigidity can lead us into petty legalisms and the like?

But here is my problem: the issues at stake in chapter seven are simply too big and too complex for a chapter! This issue is a book in and of itself. A single chapter simply cannot handle the number of questions that I and I have no doubt others have when reading this chapter. I tended to read this chapter from the vantage point of possibly giving this book to members of our church to read in a discipleship training course. I think I can say with some degree of accuracy that this chapter presented as it was presented would most likely cause genuine confusion because of what it does not answer to a sufficient degree: What are these exceptions? Who determines them? How does this explain this or that passage of scripture (there are many that might prove challenging to the central thrust of this chapter)? Does this open the door to me personally being able to claim exception status? What do I do with my friend who appears to be taking a walk on a ruinous path who claims that he is an exception and that my lovingly confronting him is simply the imposition of a Western-law-approach over his more organic and therefore biblically faithful relational approach?

It is not that R&O do not communicate anything concerning these issues. They do. They speak, for instance, of the way that the Ten Commandments are framed as opposed to other rules and laws and that some laws are indeed inviolable at all times for all people. But I am talking about what I perceive the overall impression of this chapter to likely be for many modern Evangelical readers.

All of that being said, if the purpose of a good book is to raise questions and spur further thought, this book is a success. It does indeed do that (even though, on the point raised above, I think some questions need a bit more answering from the authors themselves). I believe the central premise of the book was confirmed. I also believe the goal of the authors was met. You will walk away convinced that we must interpret ourselves if we are to interpret the text of scripture well. You will see very real examples of ways in which our assumptions and biases have indeed caused us to misread scripture at points with Western eyes. You will be led to consider what you bring to the text. And, if you read this book carefully, you will be a better reader and interpreter of scripture.

A mixed bag? I think so a little bit. But a helpful and convicting one nonetheless.

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Not From Around Here: What Unites Us, What Divides Us, and How We Can Move Forward

915bhxFSq+LBrandon O’Brien’s Not From Around Here is an interesting and helpful book on the ways that place and the cultural currents and crosscurrents that move in, around, and through place can shape us for good or ill. He evaluates the suspicions and occasional conflicts that arise from the caught assumptions (i.e., “…our place makes its mark on us before we are able to question it” ((p. 27)).) of various cultural contexts in American life: rural, suburban, and urban. O’Brien is able to speak from personal experience as he has lived in Arkansas (his home state), Chicago, and, currently, Manhattan.

O’Brien lays out the problem nicely:

…there is plenty of data to confirm that Americans feel divided from one another based on their geography. According to Pew Research Center, 65 percent of urban dwellers and 70 percent of rural dwellers feel that “most people who live in different types of communities don’t understand the problems they face.” Nearly equal percentages of urban and rural people say “people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do” (pp. 13-14)

Within the church we find, according to O’Brien, both the reality of these same problems  as well as the resources we need to overcome them:

We live in a historic moment in which Christians across America are divided by regional values rather than being united by Christian values; they feel neglected, wherever they live, when the realities of others elsewhere receive attention. We are basing our most important decisions on beliefs about others that aren’t founded in facts but in spin and hearsay. We need an exercise in empathy. We need to find common cause. And we need to emphasize our shared identity in Christ over our divided identity as citizens of different parts of the country. I’m writing from the firm conviction that no one else will do it. It has to be the church (pp. 20-21).

That’s well said. I agree. It has to be the church. And O’Brien’s grounding of the solution in “our shared identity in Christ” is key. Furthermore, his telling of the story is accessible, frequently charming in its anecdotal insights, and convicting.

O’Brien convincingly demonstrates that many of the assumptions that, say, rural Arkansans (his own upbringing) have about, say, Manhattanites (his current home) are simply untrue. He unpacks, for instance, the reality over and against the Southern assumption of New York rudeness by highlighting the hectic nature, the fast pace, and, most significantly, the lack of privacy that so dominates the daily lives of those who dwell in large cities. He further counters these faulty assumptions by speaking of instances of genuine kindness that he and his family have encountered in New York (i.e., the stranger who grabs the front of the stroller to help them get it up the subway stairs without being asked, the stranger who covers the cost of boat rental in Central Park for the O’Briens once Brandon realizes he did not bring any cash, etc.). As somebody who has personally come to really appreciate New York over the last number of years (through repeated mission trips to the area) I feel like I was kind of coming to understand this a bit already, but O’Brien really helped to flesh this idea out.

I did appreciate also his acknowledgment of the anti-rural bias among some urbanites.

By the early twentieth century, intellectuals in America were betraying a clear bias in favor of city life. Sociologist Edward Ross set out in 1905 to classify all human beings into “four types of intellect” and identify where in America the different types are most likely to be found. The lowest type of intellect “has few ideas.” They are rural people that congregate “about seaboard and lakeboard, in all the mountain regions, and on the great plains.” On the next rung up are folks who enjoy “safe, commonplace , profitable occupations.” They are kind but intellectually dull. They make up a quarter of the population and “predominate in the South.” The third type are principled and hardworking, make up about 20 percent of the population, and can be found from New England through the Midwest. The highest type is “marked by breadth and balance, clear perceptions, sound judgment, careful reasoning, and critical thinking.” They are the minority—making up just 1.5 percent of the population. They are found “here and there in cities” (pp. 78-79).

This kind of thinking persists in various forms and it exists even, O’Brien argues, in the church. One of the more telling insights was when he observed how some religious scholars simultaneously (a) extol the virtues of Christianity in the Global South and plead passionately for their voices to be heard and (b) denigrate rural American Christians as backward rubes and dumb fundamentalists. The problem with this is that many in the rural South of North America share certain “qualities…with the Global South” (p.91). Their worldviews in some significant ways overlap and so, ostensibly, we could learn from both.

I thought that was a brilliant point. I agree. Conservative Christians in the American South are indeed oftentimes drug out for a good thrashing by their supposed betters in the religious establishment when, in reality, rural Southern Christians are pretty much just like every other expression of the church in that they have certain strengths that should be celebrated and certain weaknesses that should be avoided. I appreciated this point a great deal.

I also appreciated O’Brien’s point that many Christian resources and promoted ministry models are actually based on suburban Christianity and that “both rural and urban pastors are often, if unconsciously, comparing themselves to models of ministry most common in the suburbs” (p.142). As a suburbanite who over the years has made an increasing number of forays into urban contexts for ministry efforts I can see how this is so. I think of many of the conferences I go to and how a certain degree of what is presented in those may not be immediately helpful or applicable to either a rural pastor or an inner city pastor. Again, I thought this was an astute point made by O’Brien and it helped me see how the dominant ministry resources available to us truly are skewed to one particular form of ministry in one particular context, namely, my own.

And this is one of the great points of Not From Around Here, it seems to me: we need to learn to see beyond ourselves and understand the wider picture, understand, that is, each other. We should learn to see the beauty and challenges and uniqueness and idiosyncrasies and opportunities inherent in each expression of the body of Christ as it resides in its very own particular context. O’Brien’s book helped me to think deeply about my own biases, my own assumptions, and my own suspicions.

I believe this book will help in combating the hardening of ecclesiological and missiological categories that calcify when we naively and presumptuously assume that our context is the context. This would be a great book to give believers in general but perhaps especially believers who are wanting to engage different cultural contexts than their own. And maybe more specifically, this would be a great book to give to a rural or suburban ministry or mission team about to make a foray into, say, New York or other large urban centers. I thought this particular insight was really strong:

Seeing things from someone else’s point of view is ultimately an act of repentance. It requires admitting that I didn’t see things completely before, and now I see them more clearly. And in light of the new information that I have, I’m going to think and behave differently. Christians should be prepared to spot these lapses in our perception. If we believe our human nature is so corrupted by sin and that we are prone to selfishness and self-absorption, then it’s no stretch to admit that we are also, therefore, prone to see what we want to see and to filter our experiences in terms of what’s best for us. We should welcome new information and the experiences of others that discipline and challenge our own experiences precisely because we are Christians. We should be grateful for the ministry of people who are unlike us, who can point out where we’ve misperceived reality and how we can make corrections. We should delight in repentance because it makes us more fully aware of God and ourselves and others (p. 155).

I enjoyed this book. It is not a difficult read and it is quite helpful and convicting. Check it out.

Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate About Race in America

9780691181547When I saw The Fire is Upon Us recommended on Twitter, I purchased it immediately. I’ve long had a fascination with William F. Buckley Jr.. The Buckley’s had/have a home in Camden, SC, about thirty miles from my hometown of Sumter and considerably less miles from Dalzell, SC, where I went to school at Thomas Sumter Academy. When I was a student there I knew Reid Buckley who is either WFB’s nephew or grand-nephew. I certainly do not want to overplay this: Reid and I knew each other the way you know everybody in a small private school. I claim no other connection to the Buckley family and I do not claim that that particular connection was close. Anyway, I was aware of and impressed by his being in the family of the great WFB! As an aside, my mother dropped almost casually over Thanksgiving last year that somebody (Reid, perhaps?) had given her name to WFB and he had written her some questions concerning Latin (she was the Latin teacher at Thomas Sumter, again, maybe twenty miles from the Buckley home in Camden). She went on to say that she answered the questions and provided the information he was looking for and that he wrote back thanking her and saying that he would acknowledge her in print. I was, to put it mildly, amazed that I had never heard this before. I have no idea if my mother was ever acknowledged in any of Buckley’s books.

As for my interest in Buckley, I suppose it was a result of the type of Republican I grew up being. I grew up a conservative but a conservative who has always had a weary eye of the lunatic fringe of our own side (I would characterize myself as this kind of conservative to this day, by the way). I suppose I grew up less charitable of the left, considering most all of them as lunatics! Nowadays I’m all out of charity and consider pretty much everybody on all sides to be lunatics, but that’s another story. Buckley represented thoughtful conservatism to me growing up, conservatism in a suit with a strange hybrid accent, conservatism that engaged the best thinkers on the left through the Firing Line TV show. Furthermore, Buckley was a Christian. Lastly, he was a free thinker in many ways. I remember as a young man feeling the thrill of some of Buckley’s libertarian positions that were, to my more provincial mindset, dangerous. So, yes, I grew up a Buckley fan.

As for James Baldwin, I knew next to nothing about him as I approached this book other than his name and that he spoke prominently to civil rights issues. That’s it, and I was a little fuzzy even on those two points.

Enter The Fire is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola’s absolutely fascinating and riveting account of the 1965 debate between Buckley and Baldwin at Cambridge on the proposition, “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin argued for an affirmative answer to the question and Buckley for the negative.

Now, as a frequent viewer of old Firing Line clips and episodes on YouTube, I had come across and watched most of this debate before, but this book really brought it to life for me. Buccola does a great job of unpacking the events that led up to this clash in Cambridge, but the book truly is about much bigger issues than simply this exchange. In truth, the book, it seems to me, is about two movements in America, two ways of seeing reality as Buccola defines them.

At this point it should be noted that Buccola shows his cards explicitly near the end of the book. He writes:

My study of history and political science led me to grow up from conservatism, but when Buckley reentered my life through the study of Baldwin, I became mildly obsessed about the possibilities of thinking about the two of them together. (p.369)

Well, let me say that even a person like myself who appreciated this book by and large, who agrees that Buckley’s views on civil rights and racial questions were tragic and certainly inconsistent with the teachings of the Jesus Buckley professed to follow, who winces at reading some of Buckley’s positions on these matters, and who would say that he has cooled in many ways on Buckley can also say that the idea that studying history will lead one to “grow up from conservatism” is one of the most flabbergasting statements I have ever heard. I am no shill for the conservative establishment, but history cuts both ways, does it not? There are numerous people (like, say, the late theologian Tom Oden) who grew up, thankfully, out of liberalism and realized the dead end that it is. So, sorry, I do not think that Buccola’s work, as damning as it in many ways is, confirms the veracity of his personal experience that the study of history will cause one to “grow up from conservatism.” Really, now.

Anyway, what the book does establish is that Buckley had some ugly and tragic views on civil rights and stubbornly held to them until he offered something of an apology and showed signs of growth in his views later in life (as this defense of Buckley from National Review argues). Here is an example of Buckley’s unfortunate views:

In private correspondence after Up from Liberalism was published, Buckley told a friend, “I pray every Negro will not be given the vote in South Carolina tomorrow” because such a development would cause him to “lose that repose through which, slowly but one hopes surely, some of the decent instincts of the white man to go to work, fuse with his own myths and habits of mind, and hence a man more likely to know God” (pp. 115-116).

Perhaps less philosophically, here is another look at Buckley’s mindset at the time:

As the summer wore on, Buckley and Baldwin had the civil rights bill and upcoming march on their minds. In an August 3 column on the bill, Buckley conceded that many of the “[Negro] protests” that had taken place throughout the summer were “warranted,” but he continued to express skepticism about the aims being sought by the protesters. The issue “goes to the heart of political philosophy: should a Constitution be an instrument for impressing on the community at large the people’s general, and even specific ideas of morality?” Against the idea that the Constitution should be used to “bring Paradise” to the people, Buckley argued in favor of the relativist notion that “each community [has] the right to govern its own affairs, according to its own individual lights.” South Carolinians and New Yorkers tend to have different moral views, and ought to be free to decide for themselves how they will live together. “The states’ rights argument,” Buckley concluded, “is deemed by a lot of impatient and right-minded idealists to be a plea for continued racism. It is not. It is a plea for the survival of the federal system, which was once considered, by idealists, to be a glory in itself.”78 In an August 17 piece called “Count Me Out,” Buckley offered direct criticisms of the March on Washington, which he suggested would be an “unruly” and “mobocratic” affair that could do great damage to “inter-racial progress” as well as “our free institutions” (p. 203).

This particular selection is helpful because it shows the fairly consistent line that Buckley tried to walk: yes, blatant racism is unfortunate and not desirable but this does not warrant naked federal aggression against the way states choose to approach these issues. What is more, Buckley seemed to think, equality, while slow going, will eventually come about. The upshot of this approach was that Buckley did not support federal civil rights actions.

Baldwin, on the other hand, had a sharp mind and fire in his belly and was keenly aware of racial injustice in America. One could not imagine somebody more different from Buckley. Black, liberal, and one who had rejected the Christianity of his youth, Baldwin would emerge as a passionate and creative voice for racial equality in America.

As a Christian I am particularly interested in Baldwin’s rejection of Christianity. There were a lot of factors involved with this. The first factor was Baldwin’s perception of the type of Christianity his stepfather embraced and what this faith did to him.

One of the ways David [Baldwin’s father] dealt with his status at the margins of society was to shield himself with a rigid armor of religiosity. In an open letter to his nephew that was published in 1962, Baldwin explained the connection between his father’s marginalization and his faith when he wrote that his father “had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him. This is one of the reasons he became so holy.”36 The church, he explained to an interviewer, was the “only means” his parents had to express “their pain and their despair.” David was convinced that it was only holiness that could protect him and his family from the cruel world that surrounded them. This led him to express his love in an “outrageously demanding and protective way,” and to be extraordinarily “bitter” in his outlook and “indescribably cruel” in his personal relationships. David’s bitterness was rooted in the “humiliation” he felt in his everyday life, and it led him to view those he thought the authors of that humiliation—all white people—with suspicion. It also extended to his fellow blacks, though, most of whom he viewed as insufficiently holy. At home, David attempted to rule the family in an authoritarian fashion that left James and his siblings in a constant state of fear. “I do not remember, in all those years,” he wrote in 1955, “that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home” (pp. 17-18).

And again:

Baldwin’s stepfather, David, is the centerpiece of “Notes of a Native Son.” Baldwin said that David, like the character Gabriel in Mountain, “could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met”; he treated other blacks in the neighborhood “with the most uncharitable asperity” and distrusted all white people (p. 65).

But there were other factors that compelled Baldwin to leave the church.

Baldwin’s exit from the church will be discussed in great detail later in this book, but for now suffice it to say that the seeds of doubt were planted by a broadening of his intellectual horizons and the hypocritical deeds of the “true believers” he saw around him. Though not as sudden as the conversion experience that drew him into the church, Baldwin’s conversion experience out of the church was just as profound. The “fortress” of his faith, he wrote later, had been “pulverized” (p. 19).

The intellectual components of Baldwin’s rejection of the faith is later spelled out in interesting detail:

Baldwin also launched a direct attack on theology generally and NOI [Nation of Islam] doctrine specifically. “To me,” he said, “all theologies are suspect” because they encourage human beings to escape reality and construct false identities. As an alternative to theological thinking, Baldwin proposed the “reckless” idea that we attempt to live our lives without the support of mythology and ideology. “I would like to think of myself as being able to face whatever it is I have to face as me,” he declared, “without having my identity dependent on something that finally has to be believed.” He conceded that reliance on religion, race, and culture as the bases of identity might be useful in some circumstances, but we must never lose sight of the fact that this reliance “has something very dangerous in it.” As long as we rely on such things to make sense of where we fit into the world and how we ought to act in it, “the confusion … and the bloodshed will be great” (p. 140).

This is regrettable. One may understand wanting distance from an overbearing and psychologically and spiritually grasping father’s stunted faith. One may also understand struggling with the Western church’s rank hypocrisy in its failure to apply the teachings of Jesus to social and racial issues. But the idea of “being able to face whatever it is I have face” as some sort of self-in-a-vaccuum without any ideological foundations and without recourse to “something that finally has to be believed” is so meaningless as to warrant the descriptor “absurd.” This is because, of course, Baldwin was as committed to certain things that “had to be believed” as we all are. Life simply cannot be lived without belief. The views expressed in the selection above strike me as a kind of village empiricism that is beneath the obvious keenness of a mind like Baldwin’s.

Regardless, the hypocrisy of the church proved to be ruinous to Baldwin’s faith.

Speaking of the West generally, Baldwin argued that time had demonstrated the “Christian world” to be “morally bankrupt and politically unstable.” For Baldwin, this indictment had little to do with the moral, religious, and political doctrines that had been rhetorically dominant in the West, but rather with the behavior of Western countries. For the second time in the essay, he referred to the obscene spectacle “when priests of that church which stands in Rome gave God’s blessing to Italian boys being sent out to ravage” Ethiopia. And of course, Baldwin found it difficult to accept the idea that Christianity was synonymous with civilization “when a Christian nation surrenders to a foul and violent orgy, as Germany did during the Third Reich.” For Baldwin, the fact that the Nazi movement could rise and thrive in Christian Germany was revealing and damning indeed. “In the heart of Europe,” millions of people “were sent to a death so calculated, so hideous, and so prolonged that no age before this enlightened one had been able to imagine it, much less achieve and record it.” “The fact of the Third Reich alone,” Baldwin observed, “makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority, except in technological terms.” If this was the record of the “White God,” it is not surprising that those seduced by the NOI [Nation of Islam] were ready to give the “Black God” a chance (pp. 158-159).

Here, then, were the two men who met in Cambridge in 1965. That amazing debate is worth watching. Baldwin is largely considered to have won the debate (those in the room voted 544 to 164 to that effect). I would agree. Still, take the time to watch and listen. The selections from the book mentioned above will help give some context. But if you really want to get the most out of it and if you really want to understand all of the currents and crosscurrents, both personal and social, that were at play in that debating hall, you can do much worse than read Buccola’s book.

So who’s side am I on? Simply put, I stand with Baldwin in his plea for racial justice and I stand with Buckley on the truthfulness of Christianity. Buckley’s lamentable inconsistencies in practicing his faith are just that: lamentable inconsistencies, hypocrisies. Should they be condemned? Indeed. I hereby condemn them! But does that mean that Buckley has nothing to offer in other areas? No. Of course not. It does not mean that and many of his works may still be read with profit.

I believe that Baldwin is not beyond critique either. Some of his philosophical assertions strike me as vacuous and naive as do some of his theological musings. But those do not negate his call for equality, for justice. Baldwin too can be read with profit, but must also be read with care.

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking book about two complex men addressing issues that remain critically important to our own day. Well worth reading!