Archive for July, 2010

The country of which I am a grateful citizen celebrated its bicentennial during my junior year of high school.

Among American Christians, it was common to hear a portion of the long prayer with which the ancient Israelite King dedicated the house that he had constructed for YHWH. Quoted according to the King James Bible in which more often than not it was remembered in that moment, it runs like this:

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (1 Chronicles 7:14)

Though it did not strike me at the time as out of place when quoted by Americans of their nation, that awkwardness was to grow on me in later years as I learned the tools of historical research and realized how far Solomon’s dedicatory words ranged from my modern country’s 200th birthday. (more…)

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The justification of the unrighteous produces passivity only among those who have recklessly misunderstood the thing.

The more closely the apostle Paul’s argument approaches the unmerited favor of God to his rebellious children, the more energetic becomes his summons to align our understanding with that which God has pronounced to be true about us.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The rhetorical questions, the imperatival tone, and the use of the verb λογίζομαι (to consider or reckon) that abound in Paul’s letter to the Romans conspire to urge the believer to an almost athletic feat of mental recalibration.

To be declared just in the light of the redemption that Jesus has won for us on the cross, we see in Paul’s prolonged and intense discussion, does not automatically lead to a changed self-awareness nor to the righteous life that ought to ensue.

Rather, we are called to align our thinking and our conduct with the new reality of sinners-cum-righteous.

Perhaps in no other context is freedom at once so free and so demanding.

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Though we toss off phrases like ‘the sanctity of life’ as though we all knew what we mean by that, the biblical literature traces the shape of such things in more narrative form.

Biblical narrative tends to insist on a couple of foundational dynamics that modern life obscures with a vengeance. For one, the narratives suggest that no life is so small or marginalized that it becomes no candidate for YHWH’s extraordinary attention. So does a poor woman’s dilemma become the centerpiece of several chapters of Israel’s epic history while the Omride Dynasty under which she lived—a period of rule which we know from archaeology to have been among the most impressive that ancient Israel produced—is spared just a few words. (more…)

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It is almost impossible to exaggerate the role of the church as cultural cradle for the North American African-American population. Worshipers at largely black churches may grow to take the level of musical talent that thrives among them for granted. Occasional visitors, such as this (white) reviewer and sometime visitor to North Carolina’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church are more easily caught in jaw-dropping astonishment.

This CD channels a particular family’s musical gifts—no less than that of four sons of Bishop Eddie and Vanessa Long—into easy, instrumental, jazz.

The result is deeply satisfying.

Nine tracks, intended to inspire, are likely to be recognized as simply fine music by those who look to such a project for smooth tunes rather than inspiration.

If the Creator of all men and women—red and yellow, black and white—is indeed the Chief Musician, I suspect he smiles upon the work of these, children as he puts his feet up after one (or six days ) of creation and leans into some easy listening.

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I will never forget the first time I heard the satanic voice that sounds again in the book of Job.

The year after I graduated from high school I took a summer job in a factory owned by a company called AMP in Middletown, Pennsylvania, a town more famous for hosting the Three Mile Island nuclear plant that taught us the word ‘melt-down’ just a few years later.

It was a mind-numbing introduction to the real world. My friend Scott Dunzik and I spent eight hours a day fitting one little piece of metal into another little piece of plastic. I have no idea what the gizmo we assembled in this way was for. All we knew was that it was to a little component inside a larger component inside a car.

What kind of larger component? We didn’t know

Ford? Chevy? Cadillac? Nobody was saying.

What would it do for the car? It was none of our business.

We were joined in that little bubble of madness by two grizzled old men—they probably looked a lot like me—who were our gurus. They were cynical, bored, and small-minded. Their task in life seemed to be to make sure that Scott and I ended up just like them. (more…)

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Great historical moments, when one knows the outcome, seem almost destined to have turned out the way they did. The participants in such critical junctures in the flow of human events, however, seldom or never have the luxury of such confidence. For them, there are many ways that things might turn out. Some might be dire. Some might cost them their lives.

Often wisdom takes a granular, tactical form that in the moment looks merely opportunistic. Seldom does one glimpse a guiding hand in history as one makes snap decisions while time’s a-wastin’ and the mob is getting itself up into full howl. Adrenaline plays at least as large a role as strategy. Tactics become the order of the day, even when there has been no time for these to descend in orderly fashion from a neat and overarching strategy.

Take Paul’s return to Jerusalem, pockets stuffed with news of Gentiles worshiping Israel’s messiah. It was, by and large, an unforeseen event. That is why it is worthy of such comment. Such massive movement of the morally unwashed in the direction of Torah and the God of Jacob who stood behind it was not in the playbook. (more…)

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In these post-modern days, in which every word and deed is supposed to veil a bare act of power, the Bible and those who express themselves in its pages are often accused of totalitarian urges. The accusation, upon careful review, nearly always rings hollow.

Yet the spirit of our age is familiar with power and at the same time too distracted for nuance, layers, and textures. Sucking that spirit into one’s lungs sets a person up for simplistic explanations and nicely posed theories that, in their own way, are attempts to corral all others into the pen that one knows best. Totalism, though it will not admit to such, is rich with irony.

The final line of the biblical psalter, viewed with glib self-confidence, stands out as a poster child of totalitarian urges. (more…)

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