Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Rony Brauman on the idea of "just war" (and the rare occasions for it in practice)

An excerpt from an interview in Harpers between Regis Meyran and Rony Brauman:

brauman: By “just wars” we mean wars ostensibly motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns, that is, the protection of civilian populations: saving a population from a famine in Somalia, an impending massacre in Kosovo, or oppression in Afghanistan. I draw a distinction between these and other wars or military operations fought in the name of security, such as the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2002 or in Iraq since 2013. 
meyran: Why is the idea of “just war,” in itself, a problem?
brauman: Because, while claiming to protect populations, the United Nations is rehabilitating war—when in fact it was created to prevent it. And in granting itself the right to declare war and to call it “just,” the UN is acting as both referee and player, and legalizing the conflation of judges and parties to a conflict.
I reject the very notion of just war as a contradiction in terms; war is a lie, war is hell—it can never be just. But unless I wanted to take a radical pacifist position—which I respect but do not share—I feel it necessary to understand the exceptions, that is, the situations in which war might be justified, and on what terms.
meyran: A just war is based, legally, on the “responsibility to protect”; can you explain what that phrase means?
brauman: Basically, the legitimacy of the use of force rests on the seriousness of the threat, on its being used only as a last resort, and on the proportionality of the response. There one would find, together with “reasonable chance of success,” the classic criteria for just war that have been around since Thomas Aquinas...As the political theorist Michael Walzer reminds us, “The object in war is a better state of peace”...
In a public debate on the right to intervene, political scientist Pierre Hassner cited two contradictory ideas from the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz: On one hand, no sensible person would start a war without a clear idea of what they hope to accomplish with the war and how they want to conduct it. On the other hand, because of friction, the fog of war, and changing means leading to changing objectives, no war ends as originally planned. These two ideas, synthesized by Hassner, sum up the inherent practical contradiction whenever one goes to war, whether humanitarian or not...a war’s “reasonable chances of success” are impossible to assess when the stated aims are vague and general—like democracy, women’s liberation, general well-being, and so forth...

Notre Dame

The Notre Dame fire yesterday was/is depressing: the sheer destruction; the demise of the transcendent; the degradation of beauty.
The responses have been noteworthy: from generous private offers to fund the rebuilding to supreme angst in a thoroughly-post-Christian country (which indicates the prevalence of a French Civil Religion with some of the trappings of Christianity).
Praying today for France and for spiritual repentance, renewal, and revival (even if temporary, as with 9/11).

Bellah on ACR and "American Shinto"

I've been fascinated with the idea of "American Civil Religion" (ACR) for some time-- clearly the dominant religion in America in the 1950s and perhaps still (at least a big player today).
For those interested, I'd certainly recommend Will Herberg's Protestant, Catholic Jew. But for something shorter and also contemporary, Robert Bellah's essay from 1967 is good stuff. (If you want something more recent, here's a link to my Touchstone article.)
Here, Bellah is helpful in connecting ACR to his times, Rousseau's ideas, the Founding Fathers, and the Civil War. (I got to the article for its interesting reference to "American Shinto", cited in another piece I had read.)
Most interesting to me: connecting it back to the Founding Fathers and the idea that "Christians" (however that's defined) have generally not seen ACR as any threat or significant compromise, implying understanding/acceptance or ignorance of its tenets and implications.
At the end, it's interesting to see him humbly try to assess/predict what he sees as a third period of crisis/definition for ACR. He sees the UN as a possibility, but thinks it's low probability. Then, he settles on the extension of the ACR to the world. I think he gets quite close here-- particularly in its manifestations as a strong penchant for (and desire to export) democracy and a move toward neo-liberalism.


Friday, March 29, 2019

UBI (a la Murray and Yang)


Andrew Yang is one of many Democratic candidates for President in 2020. Unlike most of his competitors, Yang is intelligent and sounds like a policy wonk. He’s eloquent and brims with joy. He’s thoughtful about policy and worried about both people and society.

But Yang is a mess on many issues, so why write about him? We should applaud candidates who talk about public policy in a thoughtful way. In particular, Yang is an avid proponent of a provocative policy proposal—the Universal Basic Income (UBI). I hope he gains traction, so he will have more opportunities to promote the idea.

I had heard about UBI, but didn’t give it serious consideration until last month when I read Charles Murray’s nice little book on the topic, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. As long as America insists on a significant Welfare State, a well-constructed UBI is almost certainly better than modest tweaks to the status quo. Murray’s proposal is far better than Yang’s, so I’ll mostly focus on Murray’s as I describe the UBI.

In a nutshell, the idea is that all Americans ages 21 and over would be offered catastrophic health insurance coverage and $10,000 per year by the federal government. (Wealthier, high cost-of living states might choose to supplement this. If not, many people would choose to move to lower cost-of-living areas.)

And the UBI would replace all other federal welfare programs. People could opt into the UBI or stay with their current arrangements. As Murray explains, aside from people at or near retirement, most people will choose the UBI. (Again, states might supplement these efforts—particularly, to help those with children.)

One advantage is immediately obvious: the dog’s breakfast of current federal welfare programs for the poor would be replaced by a cash grant that is simpler, more efficient, and less prone to promoting disincentives to work, to save, and to form and maintain a two-parent household.

Unlike welfare programs, all people would receive the UBI. It would remove the stigma for receiving “assistance”, since everyone would get it. It would reduce the disincentives to work because you would still keep the UBI, even if you earned quite a bit. It would reduce the disincentive to save. Currently, recipients can be cut off if they save “too much”. And it would reduce the disincentives against two-parent households among the poor, since current programs are often conditional on not being married.

Conservatives will applaud the UBI’s efficiency and lack of damage to incentives on work, saving, and family formation. Liberals will appreciate resources for the needy, the removal of stigma for welfare, and disempowering the bureaucracy that tends to dehumanize recipients.

Yang’s proposal kicks in at age 18, but Murray is wiser in proposing UBI at age 21. This is crucial, since the habits created between ages 18 and 21 will change the way that the UBI is perceived. Someone in college will not be tempted (much) to leave college to rely on the UBI at 21. Someone who works after high school for three years is less likely to be tempted to leave a job, income, and career path to rely solely on the UBI at 21.

How would we pay for the UBI? It turns out that the current set of entitlement and welfare programs are more expensive. Murray recommends a UBI reduction rate between $30,000 and $60,000, so those above the poverty line receive less from the UBI, reducing its costs. (Yang wants to preserve some current welfare programs and use a value-added tax to pay for them.)

In all of this, Yang is primarily motivated by his apocalyptic concern for what he sees as an emerging economic emergency—where technological advance will cause immense problems for workers. I think he overestimates the impact of technological change, but I can certainly understand his concerns. (One irony is that Yang is not concerned about the apocalyptic loss of jobs in the government’s bureaucracy!)

Murray’s concerns are clearly valid. Society cannot afford to destroy incentives to work, save and raise kids in two-parent households. And taxpayers cannot afford the current system of entitlements and welfare programs. The UBI would be a big improvement over the status quo. Thanks to Murray and Yang for promoting the idea.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Andy Stanley's "Irresistible"

I had a few reasons to read Andy Stanley’s book, Irresistible. First, I’m preparing to write at least two more books on the Old Testament. (I’ve already written on the book of Joshua. I plan to write on Daniel and Abraham in the near future.) So, I wanted to see what he had to say about the Old Testament—to see if it would change my plans or my approach.

Second, the book has been controversial, but the reviews have seemed like other examples where the work is being mischaracterized. In Christian circles, I’ve seen this with authors ranging from Joel Osteen to Dallas Willard. Sometimes, it’s laziness—reviewers who obviously haven’t even read the book. Other times, it’s misunderstandings fueled by legalism and a blinkered view of how God works—that devolves into self-righteousness. Other times, reviewers are cranks who seem to struggle with envy. (And sometimes, it’s just a good target for some amusing satire—as here with the Babylon Bee.) If Stanley is wrong, I want to write a legitimate critique; if he’s right, I want to defend him; if he’s wrong but the other reviews are slanderous, I want to take care of both!

In a word, I enjoyed Irresistible quite a bit. It will change some of the ways I think and talk about the Bible. I think Stanley’s book is especially valuable for those who have an up-front role in a church, as they consider how to describe the Bible publicly. But it has value for all church leaders and anyone who actively shares their faith with seekers. That said, I think Stanley is sloppy in a few ways that lead to some unnecessary trouble. Given the topic, he could count on taking some flak (even without those slips), but I was sorry to see him and his editor volunteer for more.

The problem in a nutshell: We often miss the glory of the New Covenant (NC); we forget (or don’t know) that the Old Covenant (OC) is obsolete; we don’t really understand that the NC trumps the OC; and this leads to confusion for Christians and non-Christians about the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT).

One of the problems in writing a book like this (or a review on it!) is trying to distinguish between the OT and the OC—in a way that doesn’t lose readers. (Wait! Wait! Don’t leave!) Stanley’s chief concern is the continuing impact of the OC, but this stems from a shoddy approach to the OT. But, everyone uses the OT in their language and relatively few know about the OC (a big part of the underlying problem). So, if you want to hold onto readers, the OT is a much better hook than the OC. But this also leads to confusion about Stanley’s goals and recommendations that I’ll discuss later.

For now, let’s make sure you understand the OC and the NC. If you need a refresher or a primer, click here.

What does Stanley say about all of this? He describes the challenge that Jesus faced in respecting the OC while ushering in the NC (105). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus surprised them with “You have heard X, but…”. Stanley says Jesus “butted his way through” these parts of the Law (106). With other parts, Jesus extended the moral norms in the Law (108). As for “fulfilling” the Law, Stanley says that “the term means to bring to a designated end”. He compares it to finishing a homework assignment—not abolishing the Law, but making the covenant and the religious rituals obsolete (109).

In a word, Christ initiated a new covenant (“fulfill and replace the behavioral, sacrifice-based systems” [23]) and a new command (“the governing behavioral ethic” [24]) for members of his new international “movement” (23-24, 71) of those who are living by “The Way” (19, 77). Stanley also notes that the Great Commission has no references to Moses or the Law—the key “authorities” pre-Jesus (113). We are to focus on the commandments of Jesus, not Moses (114). The NC was to be “in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (138) “We don’t visit the Temple. We are the Temple.” (138)

All of this continues to play out in the Early Church. The Jew/Gentile drama ranges from Peter/Cornelius in Acts 9-10 to Paul’s conversion and ministry in Acts 8ff. “There were virtually no mission efforts focused on Gentiles until Paul…” (121) But he was “discounting” the Law with his “errant, anti-Moses theology.” (121) This leads to the first “missionary” effort out of the church in Jerusalem—ironically, to “undermine the credibility of the first bona fide Christian missionary.” (121)

Acts 15 (and Galatians) describes this encounter—perhaps the most important moment in Church history. In the end, Stanley notes the irony that “Jews weren’t expected to be accommodating to Gentiles moving in their direction…Gentiles were asked to be accommodating to Jews moving in their direction.” (140)

Old Covenant (OC) vs. New Covenant (NC)
The writer of Hebrews is most helpful here. Three powerful verses in chapter 8 serve as bookends for his use of the key OT-NC passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34.

“But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to [that of Moses and the priests] as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another…By calling this covenant ‘new’, he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”

Especially if this is new for you, let the key words sink in: the NC is superior and founded on better promises; the OC had something wrong with it and is now obsolete. A “soon” transition was promised—and the move from “obsolete and aging” to “disappear” would become painfully obvious with the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem on August 6 in 70 AD.

At least partially tongue-in-cheek, Stanley suggests re-naming it the “Obsolete Testament”. (140) But he is clear that obsolete is not the same as “bad”. The OC was good but temporary (135). When we use a term like “old”, it can mean obsolete or outdated. He uses a helpful pair of examples to explain the difference: the OC is old like a rotary phone is to a cell phone; but the OC is not old like the Constitution, since it is still binding rather than archaic (139). The Law was a nanny—who still has wise counsel at times, but whose role has been outgrown by new (adult) circumstances (143). In a word, the OC is not your covenant (159).

Stanley is also not saying that the OC was “flawed. Just the opposite. When understood in its ancient context, it was brilliant!” (95) The OC was superior to existing civil/religious law and it offered revolutionary protections to the most vulnerable in society (96). But it was only with Israel and temporary (96). It was conditional and with a nation not individuals per se (98). And the NC is far closer to God’s covenant with Abraham than Moses (100). So if we’re going to make an OT reference to covenant, we should focus on God’s unconditional promises to Abraham—to be a blessing to all nations.

Mix and Match
This gets us to the thesis of Stanley’s book and its connection to the title, Irresistible. “I’m convinced it’s the mixing, blending, and integration of the old with the new that makes the modern church so resistible.” (25) The Church has a history of combining and blending (155-156). But the OC and the NC are only sequential, not blendable (143, 154). And this mixing the OC/OT with the NC/NT leads to a range of problems.

First, a focus on the Law necessarily leads to an emphasis on “sin avoidance” (see: Stanley’s intro to Pt. 3)—what Dallas Willard called “sin management”. A Christ-transformed, Spirit-empowered life is not so much about avoiding sins of commission, but actively and lovingly interacting with a difficult world. Too often, Christians are satisfied with checking a few low-end virtue boxes—and knowing that they haven’t checked some “big” sin boxes—a mindset that is implicitly based on the OC.

Second, a focus on the Law inexorably leads to self-righteousness and various forms of legalism (94). The blessings/obedience and curses/disobedience formula/principle laid out by God for Israel in the OC/OT easily lends itself to various versions of the prosperity gospel (95)—from health/wealth to measuring church success by bodies, buildings, budgets and baptisms. Stanley also points to popular verses such as Jeremiah 29:11 and II Chronicles 7:14 which are frqeuently ripped from their context, misinterpreted, and misapplied (99-100)!

Third, Christians often rail against a range of evils inappropriately. The subjects of our anger are too wide—when the ministry of Jesus and I Corinthians 5:9-13 indicate a much greater focus inside the church than outside. The objects of our anger are too broad—when we can only biblically motivate anger against sin in the Church and clear injustices in the World (when direct and significant harm is done to others, particularly the vulnerable). And the exhibitions of our anger are too deep—more in line with the “fire and brimstone” style that is much more dominant in the OT. (If you want a terrific book on anger, check out Garret Keizer’s The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a Sometimes Deadly Sin.)

Sure, there are aspects of anger in the NT—and there are times for it today. (As the bumper sticker says: “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” See, e.g., Matthew 23, Acts 5, Galatians 1:8-9, Revelation 6ff.) But when one relies on the OT—and misunderstands its applicability—it’s easy to miss that God’s wrath is mostly directed at sin and idolatry in Israel and gross injustices by pagan countries. In contrast, the proper, dominant NC response to sin is not anger, but a broken heart (253). Too often, we’re angry at the wrong people, the wrong things—and improperly angry, on top of that. Ironically, we should be angrier at ourselves and those in the Church when sinful anger causes so much damage to God’s Kingdom!

Fourth, a focus on the OC distorts political agendas. Stanley asks why some evangelicals are so keen to post the 10 Commandments in public—and why not the Sermon on the Mount instead (90)? The example is a silly error that points to larger concerns. Much of the pursuit of government solutions—on the Left and especially on the Right—is driven by an OC approach. The Right is more concerned about pagans obeying the Law than an approach that would emulate Jesus. Many on the Left are concerned about the poor, but then advocate government-based solutions which are inconsistent with the NC and the loving, get-one-hands-dirty ministry of Jesus. Instead, the easiest biblical agenda for government is to limit oppression by the government, cronies, and private actions—and from there, for individuals and the Church to focus on ministering to others, as Jesus did. (See: my book Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left and a much shorter journal article in Journalof Markets and Morality.)

Finally and most important, an OC-based approach usually holds the “vertical” and “horizontal” out of balance (chapter 14). In the best case scenario, the vertical is warped and people still do a decent job with the horizontal. Worst-case: the warped vertical leads to apathy or unloving behavior toward the horizontal. But starting in Leviticus and Deuteronomy—and then extended and redirected by Jesus—the second of the two great Commandments are a matter of sequence not importance (182). In fact, a robust understanding of what God wanted through the Law would still take you to a balanced form of the vertical and horizontal. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:40) In Chapter 15, Stanley discusses the “new command” and imagines the crowd’s initial disappointment that they would get another rule to follow. But instead of adding, Jesus was merely combining and synthesizing the Old.

From there, Stanley revisits Jesus’ exchange with the lawyer and Jesus’ effort to redefine “neighbor” in a way that emphasized the extent to which God values the horizontal. (See: Buechner’s definition of neighbor.) Stanley reminds us how surprised the audience would have been to hear that the Samaritan was the hero of the story: “most of Jesus’ audience assumed imaginary Samaritans were behind the robbery.” (188) And then this little gem when Jesus said, “the next day”: the Samaritan spent “an entire night caring for a Jew?” (188) Inconceivable! And then, of course, the lawyer can’t even name the Samaritan’s ethnicity at the end (190).

All of this mixing and matching is confusing for the average layperson in the Church—and perhaps worse for the outsider who is paying attention. We motivate something because it’s in “the Bible”, but they don’t know how to handle the OT. As such, the OT ends up unnecessarily causing the vast bulk of people’s questions about “the Bible” (157).

This leads to our contemporary challenges with seekers and skeptics. “De-churched people” walked away from their version of the faith—but to them, it’s not their version, but the version (268). At present, people say to Jesus, “I like you; I just don’t want to be around your body.” (17; invoking  I Corinthians 12) They left over “things that have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or his New Covenant.” (274)

We can’t fix or avoid all of that, but what can we do? “Unchurched people may not be interested in church, but they certainly want to be one anothered.” (274) Fortunately, “most post-Christians still have a crush on Jesus.” (274) “How has the church responded” to our post-Christian times? “Skinny jeans and moving lights” (272). Fine, I guess, but the focus should be “do no harm” (through legalism and confusion), walk in the Spirit, and practice the “one anothers”.

Why should we be obedient?
A focus on the law also leads to the wrong motivations for correct behavior. As Stanley notes: We’re not supposed to “not commit adultery because the Ten Commandments instruct us not to commit adultery…Hopefully, you won’t run out and commit adultery. Jesus wouldn’t like that…” (136-137) People poke at the idea of “WWJD?”, but the question will typically get you much closer to both ethical conduct than a reliance on government policy and the Law.

We should “obey” because we worship a benevolent and omniscient Father who sent His Son to die for bozos like us. And if He loves us that much and knows what’s best for us, then we’re morons if we disobey. Likewise, when others fail to follow a loving and competent Father, anger may be appropriate if they’re dramatically hurting innocents. But otherwise, the preferred response is pity and love—“for they know not what they do.”

Stanley notes that, in John 13:34, Jesus leverages his own example of love to encourage them to follow Him. He doesn’t command them, allude to His authority, invoke his deity, or point to his holiness (198). He served them throughout His ministry, at the Last Supper, and finally, “staged a demonstration of love that took everybody’s breath away, including his own.” (200)

In chapter 16, Stanley turns to Paul’s focus on the “one anothers”. How does he motivate our love for others? Not through the Law, Moses, the Scriptures, or “the Bible says”. Instead, our love should be inspired by “just as in Christ God forgave you.” (203) Stanley notes that “in Christ Jesus” is “Paul’s shorthand for NC”—as circumcision was shorthand for the OC (206). “The only that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6) Not circumcision. Not faith without love. And not love without faith (206-207). Or consider this key verse from Paul a chapter later: "Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ." (Gal 6:2; I Cor 9:21)

“Paul doesn’t leverage the old covenant…he leverages the believer’s inclusion in Jesus’ new covenant.” (204) Sometimes people will ask “if I don’t, will I go to Hell?” Well, no, but someone might. Our standard is not how our behavior impacts our eternal destination or experience, but whether it’s loving to others. Stanley concludes: “What is the basis of Christian behavior? The Bible? No…the sacrificial love of Jesus. We don’t love because the Bible tells us to love. We love because God the Father through Christ the Son has loved us.” (205)

I was with a friend a few weeks ago at an adoption group meeting at church. He reflected on our time together in my Sunday night Bible study. He said he was sure he learned a lot about the Bible from me. But the most impactful thing he experienced in that Bible study was the first night we brought baby Zach with us. The life, ministry, and death of Jesus constantly remind us that it’s the everyday and extraordinary demonstrations of love that move the world.

Be careful with the OT: avoid it and/or do it properly
First, understand the arc of the Bible’s story. Stanley’s big picture version is: 1.) God’s plans for Abraham (chapter 2); 2.) the role of the Temple—as not really the plan, but ok (ch. 3-4); and from there, 3.) Jesus is greater than the Temple—an amazing claim to Jewish ears at the time (chapter 5). This leads to the “new movement” (chapter 6) and a “new agreement”/NC (chapter 7).

Second, understand the OT for what it is. Foremost, it is the history of “God’s activity in connection to one particular people group” (160) As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity: God "selected one particular people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was-- that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct. Those people were the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process."

So, we can “learn a great deal about God” through the OT (161). But we need to recognize that the events are filtered through Jewish history and the OC. Another problem: Much of the OT is “the law and the prophets”. This makes for difficult reading and study, but it can be valuable for those who understand the context and put in the work (161). And of great interest to Christians, the OT is “the backstory for the Christian faith…the context for the introduction of the Savior of the World” (161).

Third, teach and be clear about genre—in particular, the immense differences between law, narrative, psalms, etc. Related to this, the OT has much more variety than the NT—and so, relinquishing the OT (or downplaying it) also has a tremendous cost. If you avoid the OT, you lose its amazingly rich narratives—a huge loss in a post-modern culture that so heavily emphasizes the role of story. The OT also has key moments in Jewish and world history, including the profound failure of the Jews to live up to the OC—setting the table for the NC. The OT has Psalms, robust teaching on the role of suffering in life and faith (e.g., Habakkuk, Lamentations, and Job), an abundance of poetry (which speaks so well to certain people), the “wisdom” literature (imagine “the Bible” without Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon!), God's staggering love for us (Hosea), and the OT's amazing prophecies, and the prophetic voice that speaks on behalf of God-- in defense of the vulnerable, and as critiques of society and those who claim to follow God (in books like Haggai and Amos). Or to put it most generally and succinctly, the OT is where we learn the most about our amazing God, the Father.

Stanley notes our advice to new Christians—that we steer them away from the OT (103). But really, we do the same with the NT. We tell folks to read John or Luke; we don’t tell them to crush Hebrews, memorize Job, or get lost in Revelation. Stanley is right to caution us about the OT, but this is not simply “an OT problem”. As we disciple people, we should teach them how to handle all of the NT—and the OT.

Fourth, we need to be more careful with how we describe the “OT”. What should we do? “Jesus treated the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative. Paul insisted they were God-breathed. Peter believed Jewish writers were carried along by the Holy Spirit (II Pet 1:21). But they never claimed their faith was based on…” the OT (158). “Scripture” does not equal binding (160, 202). Inspired does not imply “authority over us.” (160) The OT is “equally inspired” but not “equally applicable.” (103)

What to (quit) doing about it
Stanley sprinkles suggestions throughout, but the greatest concentration of ideas is in chapter 13. First, avoid saying “the Bible says”, since it implies that the OT and NT are equal in authority and applicability. Stanley notes that “testament” can be translated “covenant” (97). He wrestles with renaming the OT—perhaps the Jewish Scriptures or the Hebrew Bible (280). “God didn’t name the OT. Neither did Jesus…Jesus referred to the Jewish Scriptures as the Law and the Prophets. So did Paul.” (281)

Stanley traces the original naming of “Old” to Melito of Sardis (282-283).  And as David Novak notes in First Things, Jews have a NT as well—the Talmud. “Christians and Jews accept the OT/HB as interpreted by Second Temple Jewish theology to be their foundational revelation.” So, maybe “old” does work for both Christians and Jews.

Stanley also suggests that our Bibles might be better starting with the NT—and Luke in particular (284). I don’t know if these suggestions have any possibility of being incorporated. But at minimum, it’s a useful exercise to remind us that the ordering of the books and the naming of its parts is not fixed or itself part of the Gospel.

Second, Stanley notes that “supporting our faith with ‘the Bible says’ communicates that the foundation of our faith is the Bible…[and] insinuates that the roots of our faith go no deeper than the 4th century decision to combine first-century documents with the Jewish Scriptures.” (301) He recommends using “Jesus taught” or “Paul says” instead. Stanley observes that “this approach automatically reduces resistance.” (304)

Another irony: For all of our emphasis on the Bible, it’s still rarely read despite its supposed truth and value—and church leaders rarely make more than passing efforts to (effectively) encourage it for their people (93). Fortunately, as Stanley notes: “The foundation of our faith is not an inspired book. While the texts included in our NT play an important role in helping understand what it means to follow Jesus, they are not the reason we follow. We don’t believe because of a book; we believe because of the event that inspired the book…the Bible did not create Christianity. Christianity created the Bible…Faith in Jesus existed for decades before the Bible…” (294) We inherited a text-based faith…Once upon a time, our faith was event-based.” (299) In sum, “resurrection is the horse. The Bible is the cart…” (299)

Third, resist the temptation to “resolve” the OT and Jesus/apostles: “neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul felt the need to do so. We shouldn’t either.” (162) This reminds me of Carle Zimmerman’s work on families in general and “trustee” families in particular. Family structure was quite different in the OT because it was a different world—and that’s fine. As Stanley notes, “The OT is a saga of an ancient people struggling to survive in a world where food was scarce, enemies were real, and death was just a minor infection away…ancient history with a divine purpose.” (162) So, we shouldn’t see its examples of family as normative, especially in comparison to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. (For a scholarly effort to recast and diminish the role of the OT to Christianity, see: LSS in First Things.)

Stanley doesn’t see all of this as a call to drop the OT but to treat it with care: “The apostles appropriately leveraged the OT to make their case to their Jewish brothers and sisters. But they typically did not leverage the Jewish Scriptures to make their case to the Gentile world. When preaching to the Gentiles, they leveraged a more recent development. The resurrection. We should follow their example.” (278-279) “The Gentile world…became enamored with Jewish Scriptures after they became enamored with a particular Jew.” (299)

Provocative and useful, but some quibbles
Please be clear: Stanley doesn’t say to get rid of the OT or “discount [its] importance” (69). If one reads him comprehensibly and charitably, this wouldn’t be missed. That said, his language is not careful enough at times. He uses the phrase “letting go” of the OT (71), which implies getting rid of it. His combo of “unhitch” and “unleash” (e.g., 72, 315) is cute and memorable, but the former is too strong in implying that we drop the OT and leave it behind. “Unleash” is in the subtitle. I’d guess that he wanted to run with that concept/picture—and it’s a good one!—but then sacrificed too much by choosing “unhitch” as its cute and memorable partner.

Second, Stanley is not careful enough, especially early-on, in delineating aspects of the OT (in particular, the Law and the OC) from the entire OT. For example, he describes “keeping the law” as “about half” of the combined Scriptures (130), equating the OC with the OT. It’s not until p. 153—when he clarifies “at least three books”—before the reader probably finally understands that it’s not the OT per se, but a reliance on the OC and the Law that is problematic.

Third, Stanley only lightly alludes to the punchline in the first half of the book. This is tough on readers who are being sold a new paradigm—or ironically, a return to an old paradigm. It’s not until chapter 13 that he fully develops this—too long for such a provocative thesis. (Similarly, folks might criticize him as too thorough or repetitive, but this approach was probably necessary with given the paradigm shift he seeks.)

Fourth, Stanley overestimates the decline of (biblical) Christianity and underestimates the impact of Christianity historically, in radically different cultural context of early Church vs. cultural Christianity in America today—and other ways in which Christianity has permeated society.

The irony in these quibbles is that his most difficult audience is comprised of those most prone to misread and misunderstand him. Sure, cranks will complain because he’s a popular preacher of a mega-church. Others will read the book too casually or run with their comments based on hearsay about the book. But some will get confused (or give up), in trying to understand what is difficult for them. It’s a shame that this last set is unnecessarily large, given what could have been edited better.

Two (much) larger problems of omission
First, Stanley’s comments have clear implications for preaching and evangelism—in particular, what casual Christians and seekers hear. But there’s not nearly enough here about the role of discipleship in working through these issues. Of course, this is a general problem for churches—maybe, especially for popular preachers, who are most tempted to depend far too much on Sunday AM for spiritual formation. Granted, the need for discipleship is implied: those who would read a book like this are most likely to be disciples—and persuading them on these matters could lead to a significant shift. (And for that, I’m immensely thankful.) But a coherent effort to make disciples and disciple-makers would allow us to have our cake and eat it too—handling the OT with care, without discarding it or causing trouble with it. And look to his title: “Irresistible” does not equate to nice, well-behaved church attenders, but transformed, Spirit-filled apprentices of Jesus

Second, all of these problems are perhaps inevitable if the OC/NC is taught frequently and well—and if the role of the Holy Spirit is under-played—out of allergy, ignorance, or an attraction to the Law. Of course, distorted understanding of the Spirit feeds this. But the answer is not getting rid of the OT. Instead, we should focus on the NC and the Spirit-filled life as a crucial part of the big picture of God’s redemptive work with humanity through Jesus and the NC. While Stanley addresses this indirectly, a more effective approach would have been to emphasize the positive concept of the NC and the Spirit-filled life, more than pounding the OC.

New Covenant vs. Old Covenant

First, you should know that even as the Old Covenant (OC) was being rolled out in the Law, the New Covenant (NC) was already being prophesied. As early as Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6, Moses was writing about a “circumcision of the heart”, leading to Paul’s similar language in Romans 2:25-29. 

Occasionally, God was more direct through the prophets. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, we read about a promised “new covenant”—where God says: “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it...” and makes reference to not having to depend on human teachers. Looking back, at least from a post-Pentecost perspective, the clear implication is that the NC would involve the Holy Spirit in us, informing and empowering believers from within.

The tightest reference is Ezekiel 36:26-27: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (See also: Ez 11:17-19.)

The Holy Spirit is described as awesome by Jesus—in fact, better than having Jesus on Earth for a number of reasons. (See: in particular, Jn 14:16-17, 14:26-27, 16:7,13.) The new regime was enacted at Pentecost—to kick off “the last days” of the Holy-Spirit-empowered Church Age (Acts 2). And particularly through the writings of Paul, the importance of the Holy Spirit is emphasized repeatedly. In a word, the NC is to be the life-changing, Earth-shaking, post-Pentecost norm (a la Watchman Nee’s Normal Christian Life). Moreover, as per Andy Stanley's book Irresistible, the OC is not your covenant.

I was so fortunate to have had Dwight Edwards as my pastor at Grace Bible Church during my grad school days at Texas A&M. He was a terrific expository Bible teacher/preacher who often focused on the OC/NC and the Spirit-filled-life, while conveying a love for the Old Testament. (He spent an academic year teaching through Joshua and taught other excellent series on Habakkuk and Haggai.)

In my mind, Dwight had the ideal combo. But the rarity of this is at the heart of what worries Stanley in Irresistible. Without an understanding of the OC and the NC, the OT can easily lead to all sorts of confusion and trouble. In fact, these concerns are inevitable if the role of the Holy Spirit is misunderstood or underestimated. Without the Holy Spirit, the NC is tepid or weird—and the temptation to replace it with the OC will be great.

To illustrate the role of the Spirit vs. the Law, I’ve often borrowed an analogy from Dwight on athletics and coaching: Imagine that Roger Federer is as good of a coach and teacher as he is a player. If I had 20 lessons from Roger, I would be a much better player. If I practiced, I would be an even better player. But I still wouldn’t be able to compete in a tournament. Imagine instead that I had Roger playing tennis within me—and if I practiced with Roger playing within me—then I could be a threat to win. The Law is the instructor—and that’s fine as far as it goes. But having the Spirit living out the “saving life of Christ” from within me is so much better. 


For more on this topic, I would highly recommend Andrew Murray’s excellent book, The Two Covenants—a terrific small-group resource for those who want to understand this topic. On the Spirit-filled life, I'd recommend the Nee book above and Ian Thomas' The Saving Life of Christ

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

hey, read the Bible... uhh...

My sense is that a few things get in the way of people reading the Bible: not seeing the benefit of it, not knowing how to read it in a profitable manner, being afraid of it or what to do with certain passages, and/or not having the habit to do it regularly. If I were working on this-- and BTW, setting the table for people to be able to do TE or other things on their own-- I would set up small groups where members read X chapters per week of Scripture on their own (lectio divina style), journal on it, and come together to discuss what the Lord has shown them over the past week. A facilitator would do what's done in a TE group-- aiming to get more talkative folks to pick their spots and to get quieter folks to share. (It would be similar to the "Bible reading" part of TE.) And if it were me, I might start with Luke and then Acts. As for pacing, you could do, say, 3-5 chapters per week. You could also ask them to find one verse to memorize each week, etc. 

I think we tell people to read their Bibles and most of them (increasingly so, BTW, with a post-Christian culture) find that daunting, strange, don't know where to start, or get started but then get stuck without accountability. How do you get around those barriers? Something like I proposed, I think. We're always trying to think of ways to make it easier for people to move from passive and just-show-up-- to just do something. What we've seen is that once people get rolling, the ball generally keeps rolling-- for study, service, etc. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

blog posts on the Reveal Study (out of Willow Creek a decade ago)

We write about the Willow Creek "Reveal" study for a chunk in Enough Horses in the Barn and Roll Up Your Sleeves.

But the arc of what I wrote is evident in some blog posts from years ago. You can always search SchansBlog, but if the article is more than X (5?) years old, it gets archived or something (and doesn't show up). Still, you can find the older pieces through a Google search-- here of SchansBlog and "Willow Creek". To put them in one convenient blog post, the four blog posts are here, here, here and here.


the pervasive influence Big 5 and the potential role of anti-trust

The first in a five-part series on the influence of the "Big 5" tech giants.

The econ anti-trust / monopoly angle is interesting for many reasons. When should we invoke anti-trust? How well does anti-trust work in practice (vs. merely in theory)? Or broadening out: Why does govt do **so** much more to increase monopoly power than to reduce it? (Related, why do so many self-styled "pro-choice" and "liberal" folks prefer arrangements with artificially high monopoly power?)

Running with the first question, the usual complaint is from customers who react to high prices, low quality, etc. But in the context of the Big 5, the services are often "free", with price = 0. Of course, even when p = 0, they're still making ample revenues-- from ads, tie-in sales, etc.. So, one can still complain about $, but it's at least unusual in this context. The more pressing matter is "information" and what they're doing with it, ethically and practically.

Tyler Cowen and Matt Ridley are excellent on these topics, if you want to read/think more.


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

helpful research on "evangelical Christianity" vs. "supporters of" vs. "voted for" Trump

This work-- the op-ed version and the longer/better version-- is relatively good (and a big improvement over the usual nada) at measuring "support" for Trump-- by looking at primary voting (when GOP voters and many evangelicals had more choices) rather than voting in November (when the choices were limited and historically unenviable). 

Ideally, such studies would go further-- beyond mere attendance to other forms of religious practice or belief. But this is certainly an improvement on the common practice of lumping self-styled evangelicals into one basket.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Acts 2's Christian community done well

Prepping for tomorrow night, I just noticed 7 pairs that were passionately balanced in the wonderful Acts 2:42-47.

First, note the context: Peter is calling them to individual salvation and then to embrace a new community (2:37-41).

Second, this new community featured 42's "devoted" and 46's "every day". This was rich, robust, hard-core community.

But third, within their "serious" approach to worship and community, they were balancing seven pairs:
1.) 42's teaching and fellowship
2.) 42,46's meals and "the Meal" (Eucharist)
3.) 46's glad and sincere hearts
4.) 43's awe and 46's glad/gratitude
5.) 46's in the temple and in homes
6.) 44-45's owning and sharing
7.) 47a's God and man; vertical and horizontal

#AreYouAndYourChurchDoingItWell
#CheckTheSeven
#ThatllPreach