Explications and Ruminations on Biblical Texts

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction;

One:  Explications

  1. Christianity in a single sentence:  A neglected formulation of the gospel: Titus 2: 11-14;
  2. Social revolution in the two letters to Philemon: On the Abolition of Slavery in the New Testament;
  3. Ethical Cowardice and Anonymity In the Behavior of Some Eminent Religious Leaders. John 8: 2-11.;
  4. Political Uses of Religious Zeal: Acts 6:8-14;
  5. Biblical Advice on Non-Religious Living;
  6. On martyrdom and Christian “suicide”: Romans 12: 1-2;
  7. Peter’s Great Insights — The Ones They Never Talk About: Acts 10;
  8. The State of Those Who have “Never Heard”;
  9. Why I Believe in the Resurrection;

TWO: Biblical statements and possible implications

  1. The Bang and the Glory;
  2. The Greatest Social Commentators of All Time: The Prophets
  3. Allah as a Biblical Name for God
  4. Relativism, Cultural and Ethical
  5. On Cultural Relativism, Ethics, and the Concept of Culture


  1. My story: A personal account
  2.  Exploratory Bible Reading

An Anthropologist’s explications and ruminations on biblical texts


*1. Introduction

In addition to studying cultural processes in the modern world I have for many years studied the canon texts of the ancient Hebrews and early Christians. I have read through all of these texts several times — none of them, even the most obscure, less than two dozen times. I therefore regard myself as an amateur student of early Judaism and Christianity. On these pages I collect notes on these texts in the interest of helping other readers less familiar with these texts to appreciate what they might have to say. I have been interested for some time in how and why these texts have seemed so very relevant to people in many different social settings over many centuries. This makes my question somewhat different from the questions of biblical scholars.  Underlying this approach to the Bible is the conviction that many of the texts in the Bible encourage a life that is different from the “religious life” as it is often supposed.

Another reason for doing this is that many academics seem painfully ignorant of what biblical texts actually say. Those who have paid much attention to biblical texts will find nothing new here, but for those who, although otherwise broadly read and educated, are unaware of the specific content of the Bible, I address these notes. I suspect that some ignore the Bible because some texts, although often quoted, are misread and misused, quoted for transparently self-serving reasons; others ignore it because it seems antiquated.  I here urge a more careful and reflective reading of these writings, if for no other reason than to remind them of a fundamental social reality:  that they have for some reason been read and reread over the centuries, even cherished by ever greater numbers in our own time:  the more available in vernacular languages they have become the more broadly they have been cherished.  They are worth a second look (and a third and fourth look), in the search for more specific understanding of what they say that would be relevant to our contemporary world.  Wouldn’t it be useful to replace the vague impressions arising from the usual public references with a precise understanding of what specifically was announced and promised in these works?  How else can one begin to understand the explosion of excitement that they created in the first and second centuries, and even in later periods, extending down to current times?

Follow along with me in this attempt to understand the original intent and contemporary relevance of these engrossing texts.

One reason for doing this is a worry about the trends in our times.  Few trends are more worrisome than the uses now (2005-6) being made of biblical terms and images in politics. Politicians deliberately and calculatedly proclaim their devotion to God. Would that it were true! — at least I wish that an authentic appreciation of the biblical texts as they are would be reflected in the behavior of our leaders; there is a great absence of discernment and wisdom fitting to the challenges of leadership in the modern world. The Psalmist (139:20, NIV) says, “They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name.” Even people who know nothing about the Bible or have no use for it consider the new prominence of religious claims in politics to be cynical, like the Psalmist here.  We are all disgusted by the pious use of grand moralistic rhetoric by public figures whose life bears no particular evidence of an authentic fear of heaven.  The recent past provides examples without number of the callous use of moral claims to justify policies that are animated by the usual incentives: pride, envy, greed, lust.  Here let us insist that it is possible to appreciate the Bible without identifying with those who make use of it to claim high minded moral ideals in order to promote the agendas of the powerful and notable.

At the same time, I have been reading the newspapers and living a secular life, which included reflecting on and teaching some of the major ideas in the social sciences. My professional world has entailed trying to understand the various intellectual fads that have preoccupied social scientists in the last fifty years. My personal world has been busy with the usual problems of family life. Living within different personal and professional worlds, I have regularly turned to the Bible for anchorage, encouragement, wisdom, stability. So this is a kind of testimony of personal discoveries. For me certain passages evoke memories of events past — moments of defeat, doubt, fear, despair, joy, triumph — the stuff of a personal world that can scarcely be shared. These discussions are mere superficial distillations of years of experience, when various passages of the Bible provided a vocabulary by which to utter my own private groans, cries, and cheers of joy.

These then are notes on how those various writings seem to me to bear upon the problems common among us. In some places I will note how they have helped me in some of my personal struggles.  There is no use in pretending I have been a model Christian; I have failed in multitudinous ways (none of which will be exposed here!).  But my intention is to share what I have learned from close readings of these texts over many years of reading and rereading, usually with pencil in hand.

Not only to the peoples of the first and second centuries did these texts resonate.  They still do.  At least to many of us in even this generation.  Many of us, even now in the “modern” era, are persuaded by these texts.  It is impossible for me to examine them disspassionately, because of their essential nature as annuciative texts.  No one, I suppose, can fail to have a point of view about them:  they almost inherently demand a response.  It will be evident in every paragraph of this project that these texts are to my mind eminently  contemporary.  The particular “annunciation and promise” here directly bears on my times, my world, a particular way, for they address the human condition generally, corporately.  So my readings of these texts will resemble what others who read the Bible have drawn out of them.  Evens o, they reflect my personal journey, my attempts to understand who I am, why I am here, and what I care about.  Assuming that all of us develop our distinctive senses of identity by engaging with the world, finding meaning through encounters with people and things in life, I present these texts as material instruments through which I discovered myself, or at least discovered things about myself.  The “annunciation and promise” here still resonates, at least for some of us, in the twenty-first century.

Note the process:  a body of people in the first century wrote about their world in terms that inspired a whole generation.  Whoever these writers were, they changed the world.  It is even unclear how well they all knew each other.  Think of them, in the terms of Richard G. Fox, as an “intellectual writing group” in that they collectively developed a way of understanding the human condition that caught fire around the world.  Fox was trying to explain how a disparate, scattered body of South Asian intellectuals developed a common language and a common perspective on a fundamental problem in South Asia:  why the peoples ofIndiaremained supine under colonial domination, why so many generations had willingly submitted to the British, and what might be done to change the situation.  Together, discussing the problem through a number of years, struggling to formulate a way that the South Asians might respond to their subjugation, these “utopian” authors collectively came to a similar sense of the problem that would eventualy be epitomized in Gandhi’s project forIndia.  It was a utopian vision that set the Quit India movement in motion.  In this sense the writers of the New Testament were, like the “Ghandian” utopianists of twentieth century India, an “intellectual writing group” who in their own terms, each with a somewhat different vocabulary, collectively formuated the “utopian” vision that animated the Christian movement.  That vision remains available for close examination to those of us living so far removed from their times and their world.  If for no other reason these texts are interesting for the impact they had on the world of their times.

Such a movement in such a context of repression and hostility could never have been animated by mere rumors.  Instead, it was the texts, these texts, that were critical the vehicles of annunciation.  The claim of a new spiritual order with a new sense of promise was grounded in the narratives and letters that now comprise the New Testament.  The anthropologist Anthony Wallace in 1956, following Weber, formulated a classic outline of how social movements take form.  He called them “revitalization” movements, like those that arose among the Native Americans in the nineteenth century, movements that tried to reconstitute themsevles in the face of the European onslaught overturning their worlds.  Wallace, with the Seneca figure known as Hansome Lake in mind, conceived of a single visionary who in a time of stress came to see the problem of his people in a creative way and so to grasp the measures to be taken for his people to recover lost glory.  Such a leader would successfully convince his people of the reasons for their demise and the measures they should take.  The New Testament texts are a record of the creative way the early Christians defined the situation and the measures to be taken to respond.  They are, in hard copy, the concrete embodiment of an annunciation and promise that successfully appealed to the imaginations of hundreds, eventually thousands of people in their generation.

Whatever took place in the first century of our era to win over so many, whatever “annunciation and promise” appealed to so many in the face of official opposition and established customary practices, it is contained in the texts now known as the New Testament.  Clifford Geertz, writing in the 1970s, pointed out that politics entails the use of metaphor to define situations, but they only succeed as images of  a situation to the degree that the metaphor is apt.  Something about the way the human condition was described in these texts successfully addressed issues of broad concern.

Let us consider how the texts written for their times affected people, for there is a fundamental question about the community of believers that produced these texts and the subsequent generations who cherished and distributed them.  Why were these texts so precious to the early Christians, and in what sense? And to what effect?  For example, in my examinations of the New Testament texts, I want to consider how they informed and influenced the early Christian movement, to try to grasp what animated it, what inspired the Christian community that carried forward their teachings.

A critical issue, if not the critical one, is the animating sources of the early Christian movement: why was it so successful in a hostile environment? It began inJerusalem, the place where Jesus was executed and where his corpse was buried, and it spread throughout theRoman Empire.  How did this movement take form and gain such a broad and devoted loyalty among peoples of many sorts, even in the face of rejection by the leadership of the Jewish community inPalestineand the concerted persecution of theRoman Empire? There were many movements throughout the empire in this period: what made the difference for the Christian movement?  Collectively, somehow, ordinary people were induced to abandon the great shrines of their cities and turn to a view of life and social practice that was effectively against the law everywhere.  Why? How?

This is why New Testament texts are important and interesting; there are no better sources for the answers to these questions than the records produced and cherished by the early Christians themselves.  The great sociologist Max Weber pointed out that what distinguishes a movement, especially a religious movement, is “its annunciation and promise.”. Whatever animated the early Christian movement was an annunciation and promise that somehow resonated with the world of their times.  It is this that we need to understand if we are to understand how and why the early Christian movement, in such an unpromising environment, grew througout the circum- Mediterranean world.  The writers of these text transformed their world.  What they announced and offered to the world captured the imaginations of many publics — despite their cultural differences — across the Roman world.  And not only the generation of their times but also of those who followed them, who collected their writings and cherished them, even copied them and distributed them to a wider world.

For me the Bible has been a vital resource for dealing with the problems of life. (How I got this way is a long and very personal story.) It is not easy to explain how the Bible serves as a personal resource to someone who knows little about the Bible.  Because the writings that constitute a collection of such ancient texts are various in their origins and style and purposes, they may seem opaque and forbidding to the beginning reader. This site constitutes my attempt to explain why and how they have been so significant to me.




*2. Christianity in a single sentence:  A neglected formulation of the gospel: Titus 2: 11-14


A sign leaning against the wall of a church being renovated, with the words of John 3:16 on it, prompted me to wonder why another verse enshrining the gospel message is less often displayed in church sanctuaries, and is seldom referred to in Christian discourse generally.

The verse appears in a short and relatively unfamiliar Pauline letter, one mainly concerned with local church business. Important as the task was to the apostle — and so the letter bore real significance to him — the letter is not one in which most of us would look for the most elegant, parsimonious formulation of the central message of the New Testament. For that, most Christians turn to the gospel of John or Paul’s letter to the Galatians or his letter to the Romans, both containing vigorous expositions of the gospel as he preached it.

The letter was written to guide Titus in establishing an administrative structure for a fledgling Christian congregation inCrete.  But in the process of formulating the qualifications of church leaders Paul constructs a sentence — typically Pauline in its length, grammatical complexity, and conceptual scope — that distills the grand expanse of the gospel, indeed the central message of the whole Bible, in less than a hundred words.

Notice the way Paul puts it:

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live sober, upright and godly lives, awaiting our blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great god and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good works.


Let us examine the critical elements in this sentence:


The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all mankind, . . .

The “grace” that has “appeared” was of course Christ, Christ the person, whose teachings, behavior, and miraculous works constituted a revelation of God’s character, “grace,” for “all mankind.”  Paul’s terminology is intentionally encompassing: “all” humankind.  Perhaps it was because this letter was written to a Gentile colleague assigned to organize a Gentile church that such an expansive term “all mankind” was deployed here.  It was in any case a characteristically Pauline focus, for Paul had been specifically told to go “far away to the Gentiles” [Acts 22:21].  He had been called to explain the broad implications of the life and work of Jesus the Jew to the gentile world.  Born and raised in a Roman city, and educated in the Hellenic as well as the Hebrew tradition, Paul was well equipped to articulate the implications of the appearance of Christ for the non-Hebrew peoples.

As Paul explained it, the gospel of Christ leaped beyond the frontiers of Judaism to “all mankind.” The diverse social and cultural peoples whom the Jews lumped into the one category, “gentiles,” were now seen as the object of a project more grand than anyone could have imagined: forgiveness and redemption were now available to all mankind – a conception scarcely to be comprehended.  “Here,” Paul would write, “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” [Col3:11]. Such a salvation, extended to the whole world, exceeded the comprehension of the Jews of Paul’s time (and many since).  But it could now be announced, not only to the Hebrews who saw themselves as chosen, but also to the Gentiles.

And what were those who hear it to do about it?

 . . . training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passion,   . . .

The word “renounce” here captures the essence of what is entailed in dealing with God. The gospel is a call for us to reject all wickedness in ourselves, the shortcomings of desire and willpower so deeply engrained in us, the “worldly passion” within us. It is a call to willfully refuse, reject, despise all ungodliness and evil passion within ourselves.  Other translations read, “Say, No! to ungodliness and earthly passion.” It is easy to renounce sin in the abstract; and I find it easy to be outraged by the sins of others and the world.  But the gospel is a call to renounce ungodliness and “worldly passion” within ourselves.

Everyone presumes that being “religious” involves renouncing ungodliness, but there are other nuances in the term as it is used in the Bible.  Consider Isaiah’s usage:  “The fool. . . practices ungodliness and spreads error . . . ; the hungry he leaves empty and from the thirsty he withholds water [Isa 32:6]; here “ungodliness” consists of spreading error and abusing the vulnerable (those who are “empty” and need “water”). Jeremiah uses the term similarly when he attacks “the prophets of Jerusalem” for “spreading ungodliness” throughout the land [23:15], who “are destroying and scattering the sheep of [the Lord’s] pasture!” declares the LORD” [Jer 23:1].

Jesus in his time challenged the teachers of the law for “spreading error” and abusing the weak. No one was more contemptuous than Jesus of the ungodly “shepherds” of his own time ‒ those who officiated at rituals and who taught scripture, the Pharisees and scribes. His attack against them, as recorded in Matthew [23:13-36], was withering. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”  Seven times he says “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees!” In his attack he calls them “hypocrites” multiple times; also “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “blind men,” “blind Pharisees,” “snakes,” “a brood of vipers.” He excoriated them for their pretentious demeanor and conniving ways: On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. In the tradition of Isaiah and Jeremiah he was accusing the religious elite of “ungodliness”.  Shockingly, he condemned the religious elite to hell (whereas he said to his untutored followers: “You are the salt of the earth.”) No wonder they killed him.


. . . and to live sober, upright and godly lives, . . .

But none of us escapes the substance of his condemnation, for we are, it turns out, no better: in the end we have the same problem as the Pharisees and scribes, for in all of us there is a stark contradiction between the ideals we espouse and our actual behavior. The point is pressed upon us in Paul’s formulation in the letter to Titus. The “grace” Paul refers to in this sentence not only urges us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passion but to actively live out that agenda in positive ways: to be sober, upright, and godly. The passage implies that such a life can be lived. In its essence it is a manner of life for our everyday affairs.

It is curious to me that the term “upright,” so common in the Old Testament, is seldom used in Christian discourse. I never remember hearing it used in the pulpit. My software says the word appears 62 times in the Old Testament. God himself [Deut 32:4] is a faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he; David was upright in heart [I Kings 3:6]; the Lord himself calls Job blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil [Job1:1]. Indeed, the word occurs eight times in the book of Job, twenty-one times in the Psalms. As many times as the word is used in the Old Testament it appears only four times in the New: Zachariah and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist, were upright in the sight of God [Lk 1:6]; Joseph of Aramathea was “a good and upright man” [Lk 23:50] and Paul in this letter to Titus uses the word twice, once [Tit 1:8] in defining the qualities of an elder of the church, and once here, with respect to how all believers should live.  By deploying the term “upright” here he seems to invoke the Old Testament vocabulary and outlook of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus.


. . . awaiting our blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ . . . 

Of course we know that a central message of the apostles was that Christ is coming back. What strikes one here is that waiting is included among the things the believer is “trained” to do by “grace”. Renouncing ungodliness and worldly passion, living a sober, upright, and godly life — these are active behaviors; but waiting? Why is it here, listed among the things “the grace of God” has taught us to do? When my Muslim friends have asked me what we have to do as Christians, I have never once thought to say that we have to wait for his coming. I always have answered that we have to love God with our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves – a good enough response; but I wish I had referred to this verse also.  I wonder:  How widely is it taught that waiting for his coming is a stipulated responsibility of the believer?

Presumably waiting entails something more than lounging around. It assumes anticipation in the sense that it fits in our plans and shapes our choices. Anticipation, waiting with a view to interpreting and acting appropriately, is a characteristic human exercise, entailed in all social relations. What we wait for affects what we do in the mean time.  Here the event to be anticipated is “our blessed hope” and it will entail a grand denouement, a “glorious appearing.” Here Paul is specifically referring to the reports in all the gospels about Jesus’s promise to return: The Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory [Mt 24:30]. Power, glory, clouds in the sky — this will be a cataclysmic event. While the Christian awaits it as a denouement of truth and as a “blessed hope,” “the nations of the earth” will see it differently and “mourn.”

To wait properly for such an event the believer needs to internalize what God has provided to guide his understanding and sensibilities.  God has expressed himself through the scriptures and the believer is responsible for what God has revealed of himself.  The believers in the town of Bereaare commended because they “searched the scriptures” to see if the things they had heard about Jesus fit with the Hebrew texts.  At the same time many individuals in generations past failed to learn what God had intended for them to learn from his revelation, either because they would not listen [Isa 30: 15] or because they misinterpreted their own times [Lk 19:41-44]. The human ability to grasp God’s point of view turns out to be defective, faulty. Even those to whom the scriptures were given failed to recognize the signs of his appearance and the opportunities God provided them.  Anticipating his return entails absorbing the scriptures so as to see God at work in the course of affairs.  History, for the believer, has a trajectory; it’s going somewhere.  And we are not abandoned.  So we wait.


. . . who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity . . .

This is the part of Paul’s formulation of the gospel message that we usually emphasize. Usually we begin here; Christ gave himself for sinners like us. What is different, even distinct, about this formulation is not merely the implication that Jesus took the place of those of us who deserve to be damned but that he had a motive that goes beyond saving us from wrath: He wants to make us good (hardly an appealing project for some of us). The agenda in this grand plan is to transform us, in this life as well as the next. True, we cannot in this life hope to live free of all iniquity, but that is where God’s project is going. We bring nothing to him to win his love, his acceptance, his kindness, his favor; our good works never suffice ‒ and anyway God knows that our motives are at best imperfect. But his agenda is to cultivate within us an authentic desire for redemption from iniquity, an authentic renunciation of the evil inclinations within us.


. . . and to purify for himself a people of his own . . .

Here we are again. How many times has this formulation told us that God cares about purity of life in us, in this life? (1) “Renounce ungodliness and worldly passion”; (2) “live a sober, upright and godly life”; (3), “to redeem us from iniquity”; and now (4), God wants “to purify” a body of people “for himself.” Only here the wording is even stronger. It’s not merely that we should renounce ungodliness and worldly passion, live a sober, upright, and godly life, and wait for his denouement, but there is something more: we are to be pure.

This takes us beyond our depth. This is more than we can grasp, more than we can truthfully claim; no one can pretend to such a standard. But there is a subtle change in agency in this phrasing. He is the actor now; he is the agent. He will redeem, yes, and also he will produce purity; purity is something he will accomplish. The other clauses in this statement dwell on what we as human agents are responsible for: we are “to renounce,” “to live”, “to wait”. But here the agency turns to God: he will “purify” — and he will do it “for himself.” There is much to ponder here: how can we be pure? In fact, we know better; we know we are not pure.  And, for me at least, it is fair to ask if I truly want to be pure in the way God desires it: who of us really cares about being pure?  Some of us, at least are like Augustine who asked God to make him good –“but not yet.” The work of purifying is God’s agenda even if we are not sure we want it.

Also, note the redundancy in the phrases “for himself” and “of his own.” There is an emphasis here on his intentions, his agendas, his vision “for himself.” The phrasing implies a project that seeks to do something “for himself,” to produce something that will be his very own: a people who care about uprightness of life in a world filled with reasons to live otherwise. He desires to produce such a special people — “of his own,” “for himself.”  

. . . who are zealous for good works.

For a fifth time Paul says that God cares about uprightness, godliness, a clean break with iniquity in the way people live; a desire for purity in the inner person. God intends to produce “a people who are zealous for good works.” Clearly, in the mind of Paul, God cares about the way we live in this life now — today, and tomorrow, for a lifetime. This was the reason for Christ’s sufferings. According to this formulation it was to make us good in spite of ourselves, so that he could bring us into spiritual realms of which we are unworthy and of which we can only contemplate; according to scripture they surpass our imaginative capacity. The statement says that God has set about to produce a distinctive people who are “zealous for good works” in a world that inclines against goodness, that despises “holiness.” The purity he wants in us is supposed to be working out in the way we live, in the attempt to bring “good” in the world.

In fact, I think most of us care about doing good in the world (not quite the same as being good). Virtually all the young people I know are struggling to determine what is worth giving their lives to. Young people in many places around the world have little choice, but in the United States many young people have a range of choices, and many of the ones I know would like, whatever they do, to undertake something that matters for good. They care about human rights; they care about the evil in the world around them. That they are likely to become caught up in less idealistic agendas is perhaps inevitable. But at this point, when they feel they have a choice, they think about doing good. This is God’s agenda too, and he wants us to join him in it. Only his agendas are demanding in ways we do not easily internalize, for he takes the project to be primarily a work within us.  Its point is to produce thoughts, behavior, habits, careers, and destinies that will substantially reflect his character.  And once he has control, what we do and become will surpass anything we could imagine.

A concluding reflection:  I am impressed by the difference between the way the gospel is presented here and the way we usually present it. The usual way is to start by saying we’re all going to hell; we are condemned by God.  I wonder, in fact, how many people actually care much about their relationship to God. Presumably, some do; perhaps at a subliminal level all of us do, but most of us are too busy with the affairs of this life to give much time to such matters, however desperately important they may be in the abstract.

What I see in the scriptures is a different emphasis than we sometimes give it. It is not we who are much concerned about our relationship with God; rather, it is God who is troubled by his distance from us, a distance created in us by his own morally pure character. Our sin is deeply, profoundly troubling to God. He wants a relationship with us but in principal can’t have it because we have become so deeply enmeshed in the frailties of the world. In order to break the hold that it has upon us, upon our minds, our desires, our ambitions, our agendas, God has taken extreme measures. The central message of the gospel is that God invaded the world in order to “redeem us from all iniquity,” a project that entails cleaning us up — beginning with our motives, our ambitions, our fears, our agendas, working from the inside out into the way we live.

God wants us to be holy. He wants to develop a people who are pure in heart, pure from the inside out, “zealous for good works.” To be honest, I instinctively recoil from the idea.  It smacks of holier-than-thou-ness.  And anyway, if I really act in a holy way, if I am really pure in thought, won’t I be boring?  It’s the garrulous ones who are fun and interesting, right? The risk-takers. The wild ones.  Such foolish worries about self and image block the work that God wants to accomplish within us.

This call to uprightness, righteousness, in our intentions and actions is but one instance of a central appeal of the Bible. It was what Christ called people to when he began to preach — and not Christ only but also John the Baptist. Both made exactly the same invitation at the beginning: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near [Mt 2 and 3].  God’s desire for uprightness in us is only consistent with his character. This summation of the intent and meaning of the gospel is merely one of many similar assertions:  God cares about uprightness in heart and mind and action. We could fill these pages with statements to this effect. A few from the Psalms:

  • For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. [Ps 1:6]
  • For surely, O LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield. [Ps 5:12]
  • The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates. [Ps 11:5] 
  • For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; upright men will see his face. [Ps 11:7] 

Such is the intent of the gospel as Paul saw it. And the way he practiced it turned out to be one of the most un-boring lives in history.


*3. Social revolution in the two letters to Philemon: On the Abolition of Slavery in the New Testament


Many people have noted that the writers of the New Testament and the early church never condemned the institution of slavery. Such a view reflects the particular perspective that we can have about a degrading and brutalizing convention practiced in other societies at former times, comfortably distanced as we are by centuries from the most notorious period of slavery (it is still practiced, however). That view also misses some critical aspects of Jesus’s teaching that in fact did challenge social conventions of the times, as indeed they do now. It is possible to overlook the critical entailments of Jesus’s teaching and example that profoundly broke with conventions of the times and indeed would eventually reshape the ideas and understandings of some Christians later.

Many of his teachings conflicted with the thought and practice of his times: Promises such as “blessed are the peacemakers,” and imperatives like “love your neighbor as yourself” and “wash one another’s feet,” and advice such as “whoever would be greatest must be the servant of all.”  Such teachings clashed with conventional practice and would come to shape the behavior of those who sought to follow Jesus and reflect his personality in the world.

Likewise certain teachings about how followers of Jesus should treat each other clashed with common practices of the times; they would affect the way folks related to each other within the church, contradicting conventions well established in the wider society. Teaching within the Christian community on how to relate to slaves would have a profound effect on the status of slaves within the church. And when those who opposed the mercantile slavery system began to raise their voices, they found plenty of grounds for their critique in the foundational Christian texts, for from the beginning the implications of Christian teaching had contradicted the practices of slavery at the time. We get a glimpse into that contradiction in the two letters that Paul sent to Philemon’s house in about 55 A.D. (or 62 A.D., depending on which of Paul’s imprisonments is referred to in the letters).


The first Letter to Philemon

People may dispute whether two letters were sent to Philemon by the Apostle Paul, but, if there were two as I will explain, certainly the letter now called “To Philemon” would have been the first, in the sense of the first one opened and read. The letters were brought by, presumably, Tychicus, a close friend and associate of Paul, and a runaway slave named Onesimus. The presence at the door of a former slave would have been an astonishing event. Here was a runaway slave, showing his face at the door of his former master, an almost an unbelievable situation in Roman times. What should be done with this slave? Should he be killed? Beaten? Philemon would have opened this note immediately in order to understand what was going on.

In this letter Paul was preoccupied with precisely this issue. He aimed immediately to protect Onesimus:

  • [9] “I appeal to you on the basis of love”; *
  • [10] “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains”;
  • [18] “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Paul further attempts to protect Onesimus by personal statements of affection for him: he calls him [10] “my son”;

  • [12] “him who is my very heart.”

He interposes himself in Onesimus’s place:

  • [18] “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.”
  • [19] “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back.”

And he expresses what normally might never have been put into words as a matter of courtesy and yet was the evident reality in Paul’s relationship with Philemon:

  • [19] “not to mention that you owe me your very self”; and
  • [8] “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do,
  • [9] yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.”

A further nuance of his claim of authority over Philemon is implied in his reference to himself as

  • [9] Paul “an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”

In fact, he seeks more than to save Onesimus’s life: He wants him to be restored to a relationship with Philemon and his household: This is the power of Paul’s play on Onesimus’s name, “Useful”:

  • [11] “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me”;
  • [13] “I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. [14] But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.”

Indeed, Paul proposes something that was unthinkable in first-century Rome:

  • [15] “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good, [16] no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”


Twice he calls this slave a brother. A slave become a brother? A runaway slave, who might rightfully be scourged for running away, even killed — should he be received as a brother? Even “a dear brother”? The concept would have challenged the imagination of a slave holder in Roman times.

The letter is revolutionary in its obvious social implications. But it is revolutionary in a less evident sense, in the manner of the appeal. It was preeminently an appeal to conscience. How Philemon received Onesimus would be his own personal, private decision. This aggrieved slave owner, who held all the cards, who controlled all the rights to his slaves, is invited to receive Onesimus back, as a brother, of his own accord.

  • [14] I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. [ASV “of free will”].

“Spontaneous,” the NIV translates, and “not without your consent.” Paul has deployed the language of personal appeal. He invites Philemon and his family to receive Onesimus willingly, of their own free will. He hopes they will see that Onesimus now has a new relationship to them other than as a slave. From Paul’s point of view, given the new relationship, it seems fitting that he should be received back, even as a brother.

Note what Paul did not say: He made no reference to God’s will; he offered no negative consequences.  He did not say, “God wants you to ….” Here in this modest letter is an explicit moral appeal that respects the thoughts and sensibilities of someone who in the Roman setting was duly aggrieved by a loss of valuable property. This is an appeal to Philemon’s highest, most noble instincts. What he is invited to do can’t really fulfil Paul’s purpose unless it is done voluntarily, “spontaneously.”

But the appeal is not without leverage:

  • [21] “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”

And does the next sentence add weight to Paul’s request?

  • [22] “One thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.”

Paul hopes to come to them — by implication he will see what Philemon has done “spontaneously” in an “unforced” manner with Paul’s request. So there were several devices by which Paul made his appeal for Onisemus: assertion of his own love for Onisemus; affirmation of Onisemus’s new, changed life; suggestion that Onisemus would be a valuable help (”useful”) to Philemon, and the intimation that Paul himself would soon come to visit.

But there is more. The letter is actually addressed to “Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home.” Apphia and Archippus, it is reasonable to assume, are close relatives of Philemon: Apphia, a woman’s name, is presumed to be his wife and Archippus (a male name) their son. Apphia and Archippus are also recipients of this letter: They might have a voice also in the decision about Onesimus. But further, the letter is addressed “to the church that meets in your house.” Could the whole church have a voice in the decision? This impassioned plea on the behalf of a runaway slave was in fact made to the whole church that met in Philemon’s house. It was not merely that Paul wanted Philemon and his family to take Onesimus back but for the whole church to take him back, and “as a brother.”

That the letter to Philemon was preserved suggests how it was received. Philemon probably would have destroyed it if he had been offended by the letter. Indeed, recognizing the Christian context of this social situation, if Philemon had refused to accept this repentant slave, what could he claim from God? Could Philemon claim the mercy of God if he had refused to forgive Onesimus? Jesus’s story of the unmerciful servant surely was well known in this community:

  • [Mt 18:33]“I canceled that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”

The nacent community of believers kept this letter and eventually, when the canon was agreed upon, included it in the list of canonical works — evidence that like the other works of the apostles it was cherished, for what it revealed about Paul and about the entailments of following Christ.

Of course the letter has social implications of great importance, but it also has a theological relevance: the analog between the way Paul defended a runaway slave to an aggrieved slave owner and the theological message about the way Christ defends wayward sinners before an aggrieved Holy One. Philemon himself would have grasped it. Certainly the church fathers did not miss it. A Christian who had taken Christ’s death as an atoning sacrifice for his own failures before God would have seen it: Christ, the perfect sacrificial lamb, appeals for the unworthy,

  • “If they have done you any wrong or owe you anything, charge it to me. I will repay.”

And what would have come of Onesimus? The letter of course tells us nothing of what happened next. But there are clues: One, of course, is the fact that the letter survived: its very existence suggests that Philemon and his family and his church received Onesimus. Even as a brother? Another clue: someone named Onesimus became a bishop in the church sometime later: Could that person have been the runaway slave?

This is a revolutionary document in its suggestion that a slave might be “a brother,” a full member in the Christian community, even a bishop. When Jesus was apprehended on the night of his betrayal he said to the crowd:

  • [Mt 26:55]“Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? [NIV; the RSV says, “Have you come out against a robber?”]

Did Jesus lead a rebellion? No. A revolution? Yes, certainly. Indeed, revolution was what the expedition against him was all about. The high priest and elders knew that Jesus’s popularity and teaching threatened the whole system, ultimately their eminence, their authority. According to Mark (15:10) Pilate knew that envy motivated their extreme measures against Jesus; their eminence was at risk. Somehow Jesus stood for a different kind of world, one that would undermine the conventions of the day, the customs that endowed the priests and elders with presige and power.

  • “My kingdom is not of this world, else my servants would fight,”

Jesus said.  Here was another kingdom, another world, with other conventions, other customs.

How different they were from the conventions of the world is demonstrated in this note to Philemon. This text displays a perspective on value, on humanity, on individual rights that radically departs from the conventions of the Roman world. But the letter is not rebellious; it does not challenge the social order of slavery (As Foucault said, rebellions often reproduce the very oppressions they originally seek to escape from). This letter to Philemon is nevertheless revolutionary. It presents a social order of a different sort altogether, based on different principles, different assumptions. True, none of them is fully articulated in this letter; they must be surmised and discovered in the application. What is the wellspring of such a letter, of such a revolutionary perspective? On this matter, the second letter is helpful, the one addressed to the church in Philemon’s house.

The second letter to Philemon

The source of this revolutionary perspective is of course the influence of Jesus. This in fact is one of the points Paul takes pains to explain in the other letter to Philemon. What is implicit in the first letter is explicated in the second. The connection between these two letters, therefore, must be established before we can connect the exposition in the second letter to the first.

We normally call the second letter by another name: we refer to it as the letter to the church at Colosse and we normally read it as if it had no connection to the letter to Philemon. Here, to stress the moral implications of both letters, I want to note their connection and examine them together.

The evidence for the connection between these two letters is the lists of people mentioned in both letters. The chart below cites the individuals mentioned, noting where they are at the time of writing: Those with Paul, some of whom have given Paul information on the Colossian church; those in the target community; and those arriving with the two letters. You will notice that the personal names in the two letters match almost perfectly.

Individuals with Paul

Letter to Colosse People mentioned with Paul, the author Letter to Philemon
Col 4:18 Paul, a prisoner Vs 1.
Col 1:7 You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, � 8 and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. [4:12] Epaphras, who is one of you � He is always wrestling in prayer for you, � 13 � working hard for you �. Epaphras Vs 23 My fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus
COL 4:10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus Vs 24
Col 4: 10 Mark Vs 24
Col 4:11 Jesus = Justice [unmentioned]
Col 4:14 Luke Vs 24
Col 4:14 Demas Vs 24

Individuals in the target community

Letter to Colosse People in the target community Letter to Philemon
Philemon Vs 1 �To Philemon��
Apphia Vs 1, �our sister�
Col 4:17 Tell Archippus: �See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord.� Archippus Vs 2, �our fellow soldier

Individuals arriving with the letters

Letter to Colosse People arriving Letter to Philemon
Col 4:9 our faithful and dear brother who is one of you Onesimus Vs 10 +, [arriving with the letter]
Col 4:7 [he is] coming with Onesimous Tychicus [An unnamed bearer of the letter.

The same people are with Paul: Epaphras, Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus called Justice, Luke, Demas. Only the name “Jesus called Justice” does not reoccur in the letter to Philemon. In both letters Archippus is listed, and in both letters he appears to have a similar role:

  • [Colossians] “the work you have received in the Lord”;
  • [Philemon] “our fellow soldier.”

Onesimus appears in both letters:

  • [Col] “one of yourselves”,
  • [Phile] a runaway slave.

Tychicus is the other person arriving, mentioned in Colossians but not in Philemon; he would have been the bearer of both letters. Out of the twelve names mentioned in the two books, ten of them overlap. Moreover, each of those mentioned is in the same place and in the same condition [in or out of prison]. In Colossians Paul, Aristarchus, Epaphras, Mark, Luke, and Demas may have all been in prison, although only the first two are specifically so mentioned; in Philemon Ephaphras is mentioned as a prisoner.The evidence is that the church that met in Philemon’s house (vs. 2) was the church at Colosse. So the letter to the Colossians can be read in the context of the note to Philemon. And the letter to Philemon can be read in the context of the letter to Colosse. In each there is the subtext of the other.

The letter to the Colossian church had many specific teachings that would have, in the minds of Philemon and his household, borne upon the problem of Onesimus. So there were many more entailments in the appeal of Paul than those stated specifically in the note to Philemon: there were all the issues implied in the teachings directed to the whole church community at Colosse.

This viewpoint opens up a whole range of new possibilities for thinking about the social implications of Paul’s appeal to Philemon. For Colossians is an elaborate, extended discourse on the fundamental concepts of the faith, beginning with very abstract ideas and moving toward explicit directives and suggestions on how the members of the Christian community — specifically that church communisty — should relate to each other, given their respective positions in a Christian society. In this other letter we see a whole range of implications of the gospel that bear upon issues raised in the note to Philemon, implications that were far reaching and directly relevant on Philemon’s concerns about Onesimus. He would have read not only the letter addressed to him but also the letter addressed to the church that met in his house; and moreover, as the letter was read aloud to the congregation, everyone would have recognized the signifiance of its contents for the problem of a returned, runaway slave. This was public business.

And what a letter it is. Normally we would examine such a letter as it were written to be read from beginning to end, but the first letter to Philemon has drected us to a specific situation and a question: What were the social implications of the gospel when it comes to dealing with a runaway repentant slave?

A striking feature of the second letter to Philemon is the conceptual frame of reference established in the early parts of the letter. That frame of reference then sets the context for the directives on how people in the church should relate to each other. It provides the grounds on which to understand the practical significance of their new faith. Paul’s first letter to Philemon seeks to protect Onesimous. His second letter, specifically to the church that meets in Philemon’s house, aims to correct misunderstandings generally about what constitutes apopropriate Christian living. It is not the rituals that matter, Paul says here; it is the life of faith:

  • “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. . . . Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

The appeal for Onesimus still resonates in the background, even here. But it becomes even more relevant in the specific directives that Paul adduces from the broad framework that he develops in the early chapters.

  • [3:1]“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

The practical demands on the life of the believer are therefore to

  • “Put to death, . . . whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”

What that means in practice is that the social statuses recognized in the world are nul and void. This a new and heavenly-based social order :

  • [3:11]“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

Social categories defined in worldly contexts are of no account in this society; they are to be a new people, living by another standard. Here there are other rules, other obligations, other rights:

  • [3:12]“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. . . . And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Having formulated the nature of relations within the Christian community Paul then directly addresses particular ways that this new moral system should affect the behavior of believers in a fallen world, where worldly social categories are recognized.

  • [22]“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.”

Notice how much emphasis is given to the obligation of slaves; nowhere else does Pauls so explicitly develop his concept of the obligation of slaves. Onisemous, and indeed the whole church, could not have missed the specific bearing of this statement on his condition. But it is not as if “masters” are given a bye:

  • [4:1]“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.”

The second letter constructs the frame of reference within which, for the Christian, all of life is to be lived: voluntarily, spontaneously, willingly, eagerly, joyfully. And so it frames the appeal for Onisemous made in the first letter.

There is something more here that may be easily overlooked, and its source is Jesus himself. The critical feature of the influence of Jesus was the attempt to influence through education, through argumentation, without coercion. Jesus invited people to repent, believe, receive with joy the gift of God. Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and author of the first public covenant that instituted a right of conscience (arguing that authentic faith could never be coerced), insisted that authentic Christianity has to be (to use Paul’s term here) “spontaneous,” by sincere “consent.” True faith cannot be coerced. True faith — authentic commitment to Christ — best prospers where it can be safely refused. A church that persecutes, Williams said, is not Christian. Roger Williams’s model comes from passages like this one: Paul’s gentle attempt to persuade but not to coerce: [14] so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.

A critical element of Paul’s relationship to Philemon as to Onesimus was respect for the conscience of the other. Roger Williams called it “soul liberty.” And it comes from Jesus himself in that his appeal for an authentic response to the mercies of God could not be, must not be, coerced. In Christ’s economy the critical response has to be genuine positive acceptance in the “heart,” in the “soul.” When that takes place Paul says there will be a “renewing of the Holy Spirit.” The place where God meets the individual is in the heart, one’s heart of hearts. Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone opens the door [voluntarily, authentically] I will come in to him and dine with him.” (Rev 3:20)

The appeal to conscience, the invitation to forgive a repentant and compliant slave but to receive him as a brother, such ideas had profound implications for the church community, for the way they should treat each other, and the way they could honor the gifts among them. We have heard that eventually in the province of Asia (of which Colosse was a part) there would be a Bishop of the church named Onesimus. Could this have been the runaway slave?

Many scholars have noted that Paul did not challenge the practice of slavery in the Roman empire. I think they missed one of the most exciting features of these letters.


*4. Ethical Cowardice and Anonymity In the Behavior of Some Eminent Religious Leaders. John 8: 2-11.


Early in the morning he came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?”  This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.  Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

Mob behavior can be strange in the sense that folks do things they later do not want to own. Indeed, they are sometimes later ashamed of what they do. Durkheim was impressed by this phenomenon: “The great movements of enthusiasm, indignation, and pity in a crowd do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousnesses. They come to each one from without and can carry us away in spite of ourselves. . . .  [O]nce the crowd has dispersed, that is, once these social influences have ceased to act upon us and we are alone again, the motions which have passed through the mind appear strange to us, and we no longer recognize them as ours. It may even happen that they horrify us, so much were they contrary to our nature” (from The Rules of the Sociological Method). It is as if an individual is not himself/ herself in crowd behavior; what seems to make crowd behavior possible is that each individual is, as part of a crowd, anonymous. In a crowd we do not individually have responsibility.

The story of the woman taken in the act of adultery, as if she were discovered at the very moment of copulation, captures our attention and creates questions. For one thing, the narrative itself appears to have been added to the gospel of John, for it appears in different places in different manuscripts: here in Jn 8, or at the end of the gospel, just before the closing sentence (Jn 21: 24), or even in the gospel of Luke (at the end of chapter 21). It is as if someone was intent on inserting this text somewhere in an authoritative gospel of Jesus. We wonder: who would have done such a thing? And by what authority? A text by John the apostle, obviously written late in life, certainly after the earlier synoptic gospels were written (as the text clearly assumes the other narratives), would have been much cherished by the early Christian community. Could this have been written even after the Revelation? Probably after the letters of John that are preserved in the New Testament. And why it was accepted by the early community of believers? — as it evidently was, for the P52 papyrus fragment discovered in Egypt, dated at about 125 A.D., suggests that John’s gospel was, even so early, widely disseminated.

That’s one feature of the story that generates questions. But at the heart of the story is a sentence that is broadly known, quoted by many who otherwise have no idea of the context. Many who say, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” have no idea who said it first. It is, of course, the sentence that makes this story work; it forces the point upon the reader. Jesus’s words are key to the narrative.

The text says that Jesus was sitting in the temple, teaching, when he was interrupted by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, who dragged before him and his listeners a woman who was “caught in the act of adultery.” They remind him that Moses decreed that such a person be stoned to death, and of Jesus they ask “What do you say?” They want him as a notable teacher to take a public position: what he answers will be his position, his alone, taken publicly. The text tells us that they did this “to test him.” So the whole episode was a set-up. Somehow this woman had been caught having sex with a man, and taken before Jesus in a public place “that they might have some charge to bring against him.” They were accusing her in order to accuse him.

The pretence of their behavior glares at us and probably to all standing by: no mention appears of the other party taken in the sex act. Where was the man? Why was he not also brought to Jesus? We wonder why the writer never mentioned him? Does he take it for granted that the readers will recognize the sham? It seems evident enough to us, would it not have been evident also to those standing by? And yet the teachers of the law and the Pharisees seem confident in their project. The text implies that they persistently asked him.

Indeed, Jesus’s behavior appears strange at this point: He stoops down and begins writing in the sand. Words in the sand: images that will soon pass, blown away by the morning breeze. But what were they? The author omits this tantalizing detail. Whatever Jesus wrote, it had no impact at first, for the accusers seemed still to be pressing for an answer. Only when he uttered the famous words, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” was there a response among those who had hatched this trap. One by one, “beginning with the eldest” they slipped away.

So we are left again to wonder, Who were the elders that crept away? Why? The text leaves us pondering, What did Jesus write that affected them so? Why did the “eldest” leave first? Each independently, alone. Were they afraid that their own failures were too evident, well enough known to be reason not to step forward? Would the onlookers — it must have been a growing crowd — have by now been discussing the evident pretence in the situation? The hypocrisy? The presence of others, the anonymous crowd standing and watching, must have been a factor in their flight. Or were they afraid of what their own colleagues knew about them? Much is left for us to surmise, so many important details.

Whatever Jesus wrote in the sand, his public statement, probably stated loudly enough for all the hear, “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone” stripped away the anonymity the religious elders had hitherto enjoyed. One of them, any one of them, must now take the lead. He must step out before all the rest, in the full sight of the many gawkers flooding in, to begin the process of execution. Everyone would have wanted to know who that would be. It was, after all, the law; it should be executed, according to Moses: now who was worthy to execut it? One person alone, casting the first stone; this would be the dramatic moment. No hangman’s mask here, no anonymity. You could remain a part of the mob if you did nothing; if you took the lead you would become an individual actor, viewed and evaluated by everyone present. Jesus’s challenge transformed the crowd into a collection of individuals, standing together, each an independent actor, each with a choice of becoming publicly responsible for an act of execution, to fulfill the law. All present would remember. At such an electric instant the elders began to slink away.

But this saber-sharp thrust, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” so eminently quotable, is situated in a text that withheld so many details: The woman, who was she? Who was her consort and why was he not present? And why was no mention made of him? And what did Jesus write on the sand? And why did the accusers slink away, so quietly, each independently, so imperceptibly?

In the end “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.” We wonder if exactly no one was left. Could even the onlookers, the gawkers, have also disappeared? Such an exciting moment: could literally everyone have drifted out? It is fair to surmise that at least his disciples, those who had been there to hear him teach from the beginning, might have stayed. But there was no mob. At that moment the two of them faced each other for the first time. Jesus had spent most of the time facing the ground, the writer tells us, until this moment, busy writing in the sand. He looks up and asks the woman where all the rest have gone. “Has no one condemned you?” “No one,” she says. Jesus responds, “Neither do I condemn you.” This was his answer to the question that had been posed to him by their accusers. And if they had been present they could have used his response against him. Indeed, if he had been running for public office in the United States this statement would surely have been used against him. Fortunately, he was appealing to a higher power, a wider audience.

No wonder the world remembers this story, even those who have never read the New Testament. At its heart is a pointed rebuke against hypocrisy. But it is enveloped by a set of mysteries. Could this be its literary power?


*5. Political Uses of Religious Zeal: Acts 6:8-14


In this passage the zeal of the members of the Freedmen Synagogue entailed a contradiction — indeed an error in zeal of which we all can be guilty.

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.  Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) — Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen,  but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.  Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”  So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.  They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” (Acts 6:8-14)

The name “Synagogue of the Freedmen” suggests that this synagogue had been founded by former slaves. [The word libertinoi, “freedmen,” seems to be ambiguous [New Bible Dictionary]; apparently, the wording is unclear whether the “freedmen” worshipped by themselves or with Jews from the regions named.] The synagogue could have been founded by former slaves who had settled in Jerusalem; is this the founders’ generation or a later generation? We can’t be sure. What the author makes clear is that these were Jews from abroad or descendants of Jews from abroad; he specifically cites people from north Africa (Cyrene and Alexandria) and Asia Minor (Cilicia and Asia). One wonders how aliens from such distant and disparate places got together. Could this have been the synagogue for foreigners?

That they were in some sense marginal Jews seems to be important to the story, as the author takes pains to identify the name of the synagogue [“Freedmen”] and the foreign places its members were from. This was not a usual group of Jews.

Can we then surmise that their marginality was a factor in their behavior? As former slaves, or at least as alien Jews transplanted from elsewhere into the heart of the Jewish sacred community, they would have thought it important to demonstrate their bona fides as “real” Jews. In order to win acceptance. Were they “more Jewish” than the natives of Jerusalem? Whatever their motive, they seem to be the only [or at least the main] Jews in Jerusalem who engaged with Stephen over his Christian teaching. Also, if Stephen was a Samaritan, as has been claimed [another issue to address elsewhere], then it is possible that the members of this synagogue felt they could press their case against him because he was more marginal than they, not only because he was Samaritan [if he was], but also because of course he was an outspoken voice for a movement that had been publicly opposed by the chief priests. Why did this group of Jews take the initiative against Stephen? Something about this group, this synagogue, was different, distinct from the rest in that they instigated and pressed the charges against Stephen. Their instigation of a formal move against Stephen reveals a zeal, as they put it, for “the holy place” and “the law.”

But, it turns out, they were willing to break the law in order to defend it. They produced “false witnesses” to testify against Stephen, contrary to the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” So, in practice it was not the careful observance of the “law” that concerned the “freedmen” so much as a display of allegiance to “the law” as a symbol of Jewish solidarity. The law in such a case became a political device. Thoughtful, reflective practice of the Ten Rules of Life was replaced by an eager flaunting of zeal that would have a political purchase. “The law” is reified into a public device. The Freedmen claimed that Stephen was speaking against “the holy place” and “the law” [v. 13], a pair of terms that are glossed in the next verse as “this place” and “the customs Moses handed down to us”; “law” in vs. 13 becomes “customs” in vs. 14. So it is the customs they are defending. Their zeal is for the Mosaic law as a political emblem, flaunted over-eagerly. These marginal Jews are sucking up to the leading figures in their community by bringing Stephen before the Sanhedrin.

It is easy to condemn this kind of behavior, but in practice we all can easily be guilty of it. There is an analogous situation in our times, 2006, for in some settings notable figures are making an issue of the Ten Commandments. Arguments over the display of the Ten Commandments have become devices of political argumentation about the nature of our society. My question is, is it the careful practice of the Rules of Life, which in practice are not easily achieved [“You shall not bear false witness “; “You shall not covet”], or is it zeal to turn a display of them into an emblem for political reasons? Once anything becomes a political device — however good it may be in itself — it becomes susceptible to exploitation, that is, to deception, misrepresentation, and pretensions of uprightness — which is to say it becomes a veil for hypocrisy.

This appears to be what animated the zeal of the men from the Freemen Synagogue, a zeal that would cost Stephen’s life.


*6. Biblical Advice on Non-Religious Living

Unspecified Religious Duty

The New Testament is non-religious, if “religion” means ritual duties justified by a rational dogma. Indeed, when we use the word “religion” or “religious”, we specifically mean required duties informed by dogmas.  But a “religion” that entails fulfilling ritual obligations is not the preoccupation of the New Testament.  In fact, the word “religious” (or “religion”) rarely appears in the New Testament and when it does it means something different.  The obligations emphasized in the New Testament are of a more general kind, not specified, not stipulated.

The sense that religious practice entails faithful practice or consistent performance of certain rituals – prayers, fasts, recitations, visits to sacred sites, etc. – seems to be common among peoples all around the world. One time I was in a conversation with some truckers in another country where Christianity was not freely practiced. It was winter and we were sitting on the floor around a wood stove talking about religion. They were curious about what Christians believed. One person in particular was intent on finding out what Christianity is; he was especially eager to know what my obligations were as a Christian. “What do you have to do?,” he asked. I explained as I best could that the obligation of Christians is to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and to love their neighbors as themselves.  That was the Christian obligation.  The crucifixion of Christ was for the Christian the supreme ritual performance:  a sacrifice for all.  Christ paid for all of our sins so that God could accept human beings, who are unworthy of his kindness and love.  God could now pass over our sinful nature and our many sins because the punishment for them was now fully paid.  Whatever was required was fulfilled by Christ on our behalf, so God could offer mercy as a gift.  All we have to do accept his gift, which entails loving him and loving our neighbors.  He listened carefully, but he found it difficult to grasp the notion that we had no ritual obligations.  He asked again, “But what do you have to do?”  I went through the explanation again. Finally one of his friends broke in and in effect said, “Look, numbskull, he is saying that the debts are paid; all you have to do is receive his salvation as a gift!” The trucker turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “We can never know. We can never be sure.”

The idea that all the ritual requirements are fulfilled for us – that there is nothing to “do” — is indeed hard to internalize.  Some people have even supposed that Christians have no rules.  Here is an example: I had been invited to a reception at an embassy in the capital of a Muslim country. As some of us Americans were standing around with drinks in our hands (I had juice) an official of the local country walked up and said with a smile “I have become a Christian.”  In that country conversion to Christianity was a crime worthy of death.  This guy was smiling.  It turnout to be a confused joke: for he was holding a glass of gin.  From his point of view being a Christian meant living without rules:  You could drink all you like, eat whatever you want, and, as some suppose, sleep around.

Not so, of course. But if there are rules, what are they?  How can they be specified? A religion should have obligations, right?  Things to “do”:  ablutions, prayers to recite, fasts to keep, calendar days for keeping sacred rites, etc.  Isn’t it useful, even spiritual, for us to have something to do, something specified, by which to indicate that we care about God, about being upright, about pleasing him? It’s hard to think about religion without supposing that in some sense there are rules and rituals

Such is the presumption of even some Christians.  In fact I once took that for granted: In order to improve my spiritual life, to know God better, I had a list of things to do, religious chores, for every day: reading in the Bible, praying, writing notes about my spiritual experience, and so on.

All this is to say that the persistent questioning of the trucker about what Christians have to do is understandable. It’s a common question, for all of us tend to assume that there must be things to do that can make God happy with us, and maybe those activities will make us better persons.

This is not what Jesus taught. I will shortly examine one of the teachings of Jesus, but to explain where we are going with this, let us briefly note a couple of statements by the apostle Paul that directly bear on this issue.  This what Paul says about it:

Our ritual practices don’t win God’s favor: “a man is not justified [made just, pure] by observing the law” (i.e., ritual observance makes no one spiritually acceptable) (Gal 2:16);

Our rituals don’t make make us spiritually stronger: “Why … do you submit to rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (RSV: “they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.”) (Col 2:20-22).

This is the emphasis of the New Testament: ritual practice wins us no points with God and does us no good.

This is why Christianity is a “non-religion.” It’s something different from our usual surmises about “religion.” Even so, we are inclined to ask again, like the trucker, what are the obligations? What can the Christian do to please God and improve his own spiritual life? In the statements above, Paul was trying to explain the practical implications of faith in Christ to new believers, many of them Jews but also many gentiles. But his arguments were not original with him. He got his ideas about “religious practice” from Christ — that is, presumably Paul knew what Christ taught through his conversations with the disciples who lived with Christ and learned from him.  In particular, we know that Paul was close to Luke, as Luke often traveled with him, and would have known about the book Luke was writing about Jesus, which seems to have been expressly focused, at least in the form we have, on how Christ had influenced Paul, as the second book of Luke, the “Acts of the apostles,” may have been written to explain to Caesar’s court what Paul was doing – of course to show that Paul’s teaching and beliefs about Christ were benign, no threat to the empire.

So let us look at one instance of Christ’s teachings in Luke’s gospel on the subject of ritual duties.  We will then briefly examine Paul’s teaching on ritual duty, the duties of a follower of Christ.

Jesus on ritual duties

While Christ fulfilled the religious duties of Judaism he never promoted “religious” duties as such. Famously, he forbad his followers from praying “like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”  And he warned against “babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt 6:6-8).

So his teaching clashed with those of the religious figures of his day.  The religious establishment notoriously rejected Christ’s ideas about true spirituality — as we know, some religious authorities came to hate him and took pride in killing him.  They seemed to turn against him because of the threat to their authority and influence that he had become.  Mark and Matthew note that Pilate knew they had delivered Jesus to him out of envy.  From their point of view Jesus was an interloper.  He taught though he lacked formal training.  And he pointed out things in the Mosaic texts that they had not taught.  And he proposed a different social order.  Probably it was his popular appeal that made him most threatening: huge crowds followed him; many ordinary people were thrilled by him; some wanted him to become king; some thought he was the promised messiah.  Jesus’s popularity threatened the authority of the religious leadership, and thus to their privileged status.  So they were unable to “hear” what he taught, and some of them would plot his murder.

But it was not merely the religious leaders who failed to internalize his ideas.  Even his disciples, those whom he had chosen to follow him and imbibe his ideas, had trouble internalizing what he was saying.  His ideas were difficult even for his friends.  All the gospels report that the disciples often missed the point.  It was no easier for them than for the rest of us.  And after he had left the scene his disciples, at least for a time, had to mull over the question of what the minimal requirements should be for the new followers of Jesus — an issue prompted by the gentiles who wanted to follow Christ.

The teachings of Christ so directly contradicted the “religious” presumptions of even his own closest disciples that they were not easily grasped.  No wonder it was hard for my truck driver friend to understand – or for any of us to understand.  The viewpoint of Christ on our duties before God seems to cut across our usual notions of what “religion” is supposed to be.  So we need to look closely to what Jesus actually taught about ritual duty, about living a “spiritual” or “religious” life, lest we distort it by our pre-conceived assumptions.

Many New Testament texts address this issue, but let us examine a familiar instance in which Christ taught what one’s “religious” duty is before God, the story we know as “the Good Samaritan.”

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, `Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Consider the nature of this interchange. Here is a jurist – specialist in interpreting the law – who seemed to have a subtle understanding of the law. He was dubious of Jesus and asked his question to test him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In legal discussion, issues like this are examined in the abstract: rational discourse is the key to legal argumentation. So it is safe to surmise, and the jurist’s reaction later bears this out, that his question was about judicial knowledge and, as Luke says, a test of Jesus’s analytical acumen: How would he identify, and make a case for, how one gains eternal life?

When Jesus asked for his own estimate on the question the jurist seemed ready enough; indeed he recited verbatim the relevant text in the law (with a slight augmentation).  It is easy to picture a learned man here answering with a degree of pride, eager to display his erudition. And erudite he was. And for that Jesus commends him.  In this context then, Jesus answers the jurist’s question as it was posed, “What should he do to inherit eternal life?”: Love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.”

Stated this way, the issue was no longer a matter of analytical erudition: it was now something to practice.  How indeed shall any of us “inherit eternal life?”  By loving God and neighbor, Jesus said.  The jurist anyway already knew the answer.  His problem, and ours, is how to do that.  It was this simple reply by Jesus, with presumably others standing by, that placed the jurist on the defensive.  So he ducked into a juristic quibble, “Who is my neighbor?”  With this answer he says, in effect, “Let us parse the wording of these commandments more precisely, so that we can specify all the conditions, all the particulars, by which they are to be fulfilled.”  Loving God is sufficiently abstract a concept that it can be claimed with little difficulty, but loving your neighbor belongs to a differe order altogether:  it is a matter of social practice.  So the second of these commanments is a problem:  how do you put it into practice?  What began with an opportunity to display erudiction in the subtleties of the Mosaic law now descends into a search for specificity (“what you have to do”).  The jurist moves from the spirit of the law to its letter.

Again, however, Jesus doesn’t really answer the jurist’s question, and in the end he will ask the jurist a second time to provide an interpretation.  What creates the puzzle for us, as for the jurist, is the way the legalistic question is dealt with.  Jesus presents an incident — apparently not a parable or a mere hypothetical story, but an actual event — as an illustration of how one might fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.  Note the following details in the incident:

  • All three of the travelers “saw” the victim in his pathetic state.  Merely seeing him entailed an obligation; indeed, the jurist himself would by his answer ajudge that an obligation was inherent what they “saw.”
  • The way they behaved displayed how willing they were to recognize that obligation.  The circumstance forced upon them a choice:  to ignore the bleeding man and “pass by on the other side,” or to interrupt travel plans and help him, even to expend extra money and time on this stranger.
  • A crucial element in this incident was surprise.  By “chance,” Jesus said, the travellers came across this helpless man.  None of the travelers expected to find someone in this condition in their path.  All had things to do, places to go, agendas of importance to them.  The challenge that Jesus presented to the jurist is how to respond to a situation that was unforeseen.  If the pre-eminent issue was the necessity to perform a certain task according to schedule and in a stipulated manner, an upright “religious” person would know what to do.  He or she would have worked it out in advance, figured out how to respond to the situation.  But here was a unforeseen situation in which the three travelers had to act on the spur of the moment.

Jesus’s incident extricated the demands of “law” from the antiseptic world of rational analysis, in which conditions and requirements could be specified, and placed those demands in a circumstance more like the kind of world people live in:  the informal, unplanned, unexpected, unpredictable world of actual affairs.  Human life consists of doing things, making plans, taking decisions, following schedules in a world that is never fully predictable, where certainty is never assured.  How does one act, as it were, spontaneously, creatively, in circumstances that are unforeseen?

The entailments of obedience to this rule, love your neighbor, are large and unspecified.  In fact, they are unspecifiable.  This is why Jesus’s incident, simply told, was a brilliant challenge to a specialist in legal argumentation.  The incident revealed to the jurist that one must act creatively in order to fulfill this commandment — in fact, of course most commandments.

For “love” is unspecifiable.  My wife Rita loves our neighbors in ways that I would never dream of.  In fact, for me to love my neighbor as Jesus taught love in this incident I would have to exercise my own creative faculties.  I have to think up my own way of loving our neighbors.  It is not that we are allowed to be creative in the way we love our neighbor: it is that we must be creative if we are to love them at all.  So, there is a wide latitude for the Christian in carrying out the demands of his faith.  We must act creatively, fittingly, to the world we encounter, the situations we “see” in order to fulfill this commandment.  At the same time whatever we do, Jesus taught in another context, will be judged.  As Jesus put it, “men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:36, 37). So, for those who would “inherit the kingdom of God” there an obligation — a directive — to invent creative ways of loving our neighbors in situations as they arise — as they are “seen”.  And we are to expect our creativity to be examined by the one other person who knows us through and through.  We are to love our neighbors in the space between creative and circumstantial necessity and the moral sensitivity of a perfect God; creatively responding to situations as they arise, and deploying every word and every action in a way fitting to the God who will judge us.  No wonder it is difficult to explain what one has to do to inherit eternal life!  Jesus did it succinctly and pointedly to this jurist.

The jurist himself, acknowledging what was right to do, however, had difficulty even pronouncing the identity of the hero of the story, the Samaritan, a man who, from the jurist’s viewpoint, was a heretic, even an apostate, an enemy. The twist in this story is that the Samaritans were despised by the Jews for their betrayal of the Mosaic revelation.  They were heritics, apostate, and so enemies of the Mosaic law.  It was a Samaritan that got it right while the Hebrew priest and the Levite alike got it wrong.  What was Jesus saying here about the uprightness of those who are outside of the line of revelation?

Paul on non-religious living

Now this is the context of Paul’s teaching about religious or ritual duty.  Fundamentally “religion” does not interest him: instead, it’s a “walk” that interests him, a way of life. That is the context of his vigorous challenge to the Galatian Christians.

We have already quoted from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “a man is not justified by observing the law” (that is, by observing the Mosaic ritual requirements; Gal 2:16).  The context of this statement is Paul’s alarm that the Galatians have decided to take up the Hebrew ritual practices as a form of Christian worship. The Galatians were believers: They had “begun in the spirit” [3:3]; they were already “sons of God” and “baptized in the faith”; they were already “one in Christ” (3:26-28), and so they had been “running a good race” (5:7). But someone had “cut in on them” in the race (5:7); someone had “bewitched” them (3:1).

It is easy to picture new believers eager to put their new faith into practice, wanting to go on in their faith, to further their spiritual life. They wanted to know, in the words of the truck diver, “what you have to do,” or at least “what else you have to do.”  And some people had told them about the Mosaic tradition that Jesus and his disciples had come from, how it was revealed by God and so provided the guidance on what to do next in order to advance in their new-found faith. The place to start, hey were told, was with the ritual circumcision of the Jews and the practice of the Mosaic rituals.

Paul is frantic. His letter to the Galatians was written in haste, in desperation. Throughout the letter he exclaims and cajoles; he breaks off sentences; he even curses, twice, those who have introduced these ideas, the “circumcision group.”  Paul, a Jew who knows these regulations well, urgently warns them against this ritualistic conception of their faith. For one thing, he says, the ritual regulations are extensive and rigorous, and they must be fulfilled precisely, all of them as a whole, in order for them to be fulfilled (consider the dozens of ritual procedures enumerated in Exodus and Leviticus).  Another problem is that no one can fulfill all the Mosaic requirements fully, not even the disciples of Jesus, not even Peter.  Moreover, Paul says, to commitment yourself to a system of ritual duties is a form of bondage. And anyway, finally, even if you could keep all the rules correctly you would still fail to be perfect enough to match God’s standard of purity, that is, to be “justified” before God.

Rather, the life that Paul calls the Galatias to is to find fulfillment in everyday experience, in the course of quotitian affairs. Those who have embraced the mercy of Christ are to become vehicles through which Christ’s character is demonstrated in actual life.  By “trying to attain [their] goal by human effort” (3:3) they were missing the point of the gospel, which was to set them free from specified ritual obligations. At one point Paul exclaims, “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!” (4:10) – rites and rituals that had nothing to do with the salvation the Galatians were supposed to enjoy. Their new salvation delivered them from such legal obligations; how then could they turn back to them?  Rather, they were now under a new juridical order, one based on different premises than the Mosaic law, and entailing different conceptions of obligation, a quite different way of living, a different moral order entirely.  This new moral order was to be put into practice by the  creative display of God’s character in existential contexts, always circumstatially, in innovative ways in the life of the believer.  Paul uses himself as an example:

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me, and yet not I but Christ lives in me, and that life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me.” (2:20)

A new social order is in play, with different conceptions of virtue and fresh conceptions of one’s relationship to God. The follower of Christ is to live by faith, confronting situations with a way of seeing that emulates and demonstrates Christ in the world, and so the believer is to display in the disparate contexts of everyday life the love of God. It is a life of faith in the sense that believers, like all human beings, live in a world of fresh encounters, unforeseen events, surprising turns.  They like all humans must deal with a world whose properties escape predictability and human control — and in such situations the believer must creatively evince the character of Christ.  In the flow of human affairs – in victories, defeats, joys, heartaches, disappointments, surprising turns of affairs – the believer is to act as an objective demonstration of what Christ is like.

Paul describes this creative way of living as the “fruit” of God’s Spirit, which he describes by listing a series of virtues.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control” (5:22,23)

These are not actions to be performed.  They cannot be rituals, for they unspecifiable:  How do you specify “love,” or “joy,” or “peace” — or any of the rest in this list?  They are virtues – or aspects of a God’s character — that can only be behaviorally manifested situationally, and even then only by invention.  Paul tacks on to this list a comment that such virtues are nowhere prohibited.  Yes, this is virtue that all humanity recognizes. But note also: no law can produce it. It has to come from some motive other than the pursuit of ritual exactness. In the end, to appear as required, this “fruit” has be authentic, motivated by genuine qualities of the sort listed here: genuine love, genuine joy, and so on.  It has to come from within. Indeed, the pre-eminent wellspring of such “fruit” is an interior person full of praise.  To appropriate the language of Paul’s own Hebrew scriptures, it comes from a soul full of gladness instead of mourning, full of praise instead of despair [Isa 61:3].  A critical phrase in Paul’s description of his own life of faith is the way he conceives of the one in whom he places his trust:  a person who has already demonstrated his love and trustworthiness — Christ, has “loved me and given himself for me.”

The life of praise

We live under a kind heaven. For those of us who have blundered and failed time and again the abundance of God’s mercy should create praise, joy, thanksgiving, the exultation of a freed soul, freed at last, to give thanks spontaneously.  In the end, all that can be said is “Thank you. I owe you everything. All that I am and all that I would like to be is yours.” So worship, the spontaneous burst of praise and thanksgiving for mercy that is undeserved, is the fitting response, the thing “to do.”

Even now, though, my truck driver friend could be asking for specifics, “But what do you have to do?”  Something Paul says late in this letter to Galatians provides a formulation that perhaps the truck driver could finally bite into.  Pauls says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Something to “do,” yes, but a task that in its very nature can never be specified.  To fulfill it you have to be creative; you must invent what to do according to the circumstance. What could “the law of Christ” be?  And in what sense is it the fulfillment of that “law”?  Jesus, as usual, provides us with a neat, clarifying example, to turn back to where we began: the Samaritan traveler who cared for a stranger he found in his path. The situation as encountered, Jesus implies, required the traveler to recognize the need of the human being near death on the road, and to invent a suitable way to help him.  The Samaritan recognized his obligation to this stranger – well, in the new moral world that Jesus was describing (and Paul was explaining to the Galatians), one in which moral obligations are pervasive but unspecified; in this setting this helpless victim was a “neighbor” not a stranger.  And the Samaritan carried out his obligation in a way that was in no way ritually stipulated but in every way suited to the situation and his ability.  The obligation one has in Christ’s moral universe is this: to receive issues – needs, problems, injustices – as they appear, as they are found along the path, and to show “neighborliness” then and there.  This is the “law of Christ.” And because this law is not stipulated, it allows for differences in personality and social station – my wife’s creative way of loving our neighbors as well as my own, even if they in fact are behaviorally different.  This is freedom from ritual obligation.  “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). But it is less open-ended than we might suppose, for we will all be judged for what we do in such situations, even down to the “idle words” we speak.  Someday we will give account to the one in whose name we act in the world, to explain what we did with the moral freedom given to us. The way we carry out this obligation, this unspecified duty, matters plenty.

I wish such a wellspring would work spontaneously within me, as if somehow producing such “fruit of the Spirit” were easy, “natural.”  Paul recognizes that the intellect as well as the will must always be exercised in the production of such fruit.  This is why he uses the imperative: “Bear one another’s burdens …”  In the end, what we have do is an act of the will, a decision, as well as a way of seeing.  Which is why Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians and why Jesus told his story to the jurist.


*7. On martyrdom and Christian “suicide”: Romans 12: 1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2]

The New York Times of 6/30/02 has an article about one of the most aggressive zealots among the Palestinians fighting the Israelis. He had enlisted many young people to sacrifice themselves in explosions among the Israelis before he was killed last April. He was 22 years old. He had lived in the world of Hamas as a fighter against Israel, ready to sacrifice himself as a martyr for Palestine, for “freedom”. I was struck by the fact that most of us — on all sides of the struggles around the world — consider our struggles to be for good. The Palestinians are fighting evil personified in the Israelis; the case against all Jews, at least for Hamas, is that Israel has no right to exist. The Israelis are fighting evil personified in certain Palestinians. In each case they are prepared to be martyrs in the cause.

The Christian concept of self-sacrifice is very different. It demands a similar willingness to sacrifice selfish and immediate concerns for something bigger and in that sense demands a kind of martyrdom. And the martyrdom it requires is at one’s own hand, at least by one’s own volition; no one else can do it for us. It is “die to self”, to our own interests in order that all that we are might live for him. “I have been crucified,” Paul says. “I died that I might live for God” [Gal 2:19-20]. And yet he lives, he says, because the life he lives he lives by faith in the Son of God. Christ died “for all” so that “those who live will live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” [IICor 5:15]. “[Y]ield yourselves to God as people who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness [Rom 6:13] so that God can live out in you. The Christ that the world in our time will see will be seen through us.

The challenge is to live out a life that portrays what Christ is like. This is one reason the Christian needs to keep close to the scriptures so that we can have a clear sense of what Christ is like and how he would like to be portrayed in the world. It requires ingenuity, creativity, to express the distinctive life of Christ in the unfolding series of events that make up our life. So it means that we have to have a sense of the God who is behind the scriptures and is expressed in Christ in order to demonstrate, as we best can, what He is like in each situation as we encounter it. A man who was head of a Christian service team in South Asia for many years, read a few chapters of the scriptures every day, so as to get through the whole of scripture regularly; he said he liked to have the scriptures always before him when he made decisions. We are all in need of having the scriptures before us, to see the examples of those who have gone before us, to be reminded of the enjoinders and directives given to us in scripture, to remember the prayers of Christ for his people and of the apostles for those who had committed themselves to Christ, to claim the promises the scriptures give us in abundance, as we face the issues before us. And our generation has no excuse: access to the texts of scripture is now easier than ever before.

The example of Christ is something different from fighting a material war. “My kingdom is not of this world, else my servants would fight,” he said [John 18:36]. But his example was to lay aside his glory, his own interests, and take the form of a servant, and to humble himself even to the point of being falsely accused and condemned as a common criminal. He teaches us to renounce all the things that serve our egos, our selfish interests, and to live humbly as servants — a very different concept of serving God than those who would fight a worldly war. That is not the kind of war we fight, Paul says, for our enemy is not flesh and blood but principalities and powers and the rulers of darkness that stand behind the evil in the world [Eph 4:12]. This is the Christian sense of martyrdom: letting this body, in this world, express another kind of commitment, another standard of virtue, one that participates in another kind of economy, in which value is made by giving and serving, turning our bodies into vessels of God’s love.


*8. Peter’s Great Insights — The Ones They Never Talk About: Acts 10


Much has been made of Peter’s great declaration: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!,” and deservedly so. But Peter formulated two other great insights whose importance, it seems to me, have been overlooked by the Church. They appear in Luke’s narrative of the early history of the Church, in Acts 10.

Events described there marked a dramatic turn in the history of the church, a turn of events in which Peter formulated a spiritual reality he and his Jewish Christian colleagues had not recognized before. As Peter put his new thoughts into words, each at a strategic moment, each in a particularly clear and decisive language, he formulated a new perspective on the world and his place in it. Possibly, what came out of his mouth surprised even him as much as the other Jews who were with him. And yet it was authentically Peter’s own thought, his own logical construction from what he had experienced. He came to see what he saw, and to understand what he understood, experientially, just as he had experienced Jesus. One wonders if it could have happened any other way, for it was a remarkable turn of mind, for he would in effect state that a Jew could not only agree to have fellowship with a Gentile, but also invite him into his house, dine with him, and enter his house. And, even more surprising, that the God of heaven would grant the same spiritual status to a Gentile as to a Jew. Here is the story of how he came to this.

The context

The Time. This was a time when the Christian community had begun to be dispersed, owing to persecution:  “… all except the apostles were scattered in Judea andSamaria”  [8:2 +].  But the persecution seemed to abate and the gospel was prospering:  Paul’s conversion has recently taken place  [Ch 9]; the church has been doing well “throughout Judea, Galilee andSamaria” [9:31]; and Peter has healed a paralytic and raised a woman from the dead [9:32-42].

The Spatial setting.  The focus shifts to the city ofCaesareawhere a Centurian has a remarkable experience.  In the mean time Peter is in Joppa where he has raised the woman from the dead.  This is a Roman city, probably not inhabited by many Jews.

The Social setting.  The Jews and Romans normally kept apart.  The Romans probably had little interest in Jewish affairs [as appears in several parts of Acts]; the Jews regarded the Romans as unclean and so avoided much contact with them [as our story reveals in Ch 10].


Cornelius.  Centurian in the Italian Regiment. [10:1+] “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” Also, the text tells us that his “prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God” [10:4].  And, “He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people” [10:22].  He was visited by a “holy angel” [10:22].  When he met a man of God [Peter] he fell down before him – unusual behavior for a Roman before a subject people.

A holy angel from God.  Comes to Cornelius with a personal message. “He distinctly saw an angel of God,” who directed him to send for Peter and he is given his whereabouts in detail:  “with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea” [10:6].

Peter, and also the “brothers” who are with him. Peter’s special importance in the extension of the gospel has been indicated by Jesus and he has served as the most outspoken leader of the apostles.  His experience, described here, was significant for him personally, but more importantly, it was significant for the wider community of Christians, because it revealed something about the gospel that they had not yet realized:  that God was working among the Gentiles as well as the Jews and was at this time reaching out to them in a special way.

The challenge to Peter’s imaginative world

Peter’s experience began in Joppa, “on the following day” – that is, after Cornelius’s vision [although Peter had not yet heard about it].  On that day he had a dream in which three times he was confronted with food that Jews would not eat.  Three times he recoiled. And each time he was told, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”  Peter was pondering what this could mean when the men fromCaesarea– Gentiles — found him.  Again the Spirit spoke to him, this time to tell him to go down to meet the men and to go with them.  Peter, a Jew, invited the men, Gentiles, into the house.  For a presumably Jewish household, this must have been an astonishing act. Evidently, they accepted it, no doubt in deference to Peter.  Here was a new experience and a challenge for Peter and those with him.  The next day he and some “brothers,” Christianized Jews no doubt, left together to go with the Gentiles to the house of Cornelius.  When he met Cornelius, Cornelius fell at his feet in reverence, but Peter refused to allow it and declared himself to be “only a man myself.” Cornelius in any case grasped the spiritual significance of the occasion, for he would say [10:33] “we are all here in the presence of God.” It is curious that Luke says that “as he talked” Peter entered a room filled with people.  They were no doubt all Gentiles, Cornelius’s friends, as well as members of his family. Cornelius, we have noted, was an upright man, but he was not alone: many others were there eager to hear what Peter would tell them.

Two entirely novel formulations

Peter will tell the story of Jesus and in the process he makes two statements of great importance to Luke’s narrative and, as it would happen, to the Church in this nascent period of its development.  The first of these was this: [10:28]

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”

His reference of course is to the vision he had had only the previous day, which had so mystified him.  But in the course of the day had come to understand it.  It was an understanding induced by a series of events no one could have anticipated.  The fellow travelers would have talked on the way to Caesarea– he, his Jewish colleagues, and the Gentile messengers to came to fetch him. [Could they have ridden? Peter and his friends were not well-to-do, but Cornelius may have provided mounts for them.] Peter – and also his Jewish companions? — had grasped what the vision meant: A Jew could call no one impure; human beings are all the same, on the same standing with God. What a radical idea for a Jew! The vision and the events as they would transpire would open up, for Peter and his Jewish companions, a world of new possibilities, a new vision, a far grander horizon. By the time they had reached CaesareaPeter was able to put into words a profoundly revolutionary implication of the gospel that he had been preaching: That the Gentiles and Jews were in the eyes of God indistinguishable: “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” He had no grounds for separating himself from Gentiles, for he and they were spiritually on the same plane in the eyes of God. The point was so significant to him that Peter says it again in opening lines of his second letter to the dispersed Christians of Asia Minor: they have equal standing before God.

Cornelius immediately told Peter about his encounter with the angel and then said “It was good of you to come,” recognizing what Peter’s act in coming meant to a Jew.  And then he urged his visitor to speak: “We are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” [10:33]. Cornelius, and presumably his guests, recognized that this was a momentous situation. They were, as he said, “in the presence of God.”

Peter’s response in this setting was conceptually as momentous as the first statement, if not more so — at least for anyone who was a Jew. The concept he then put into words, again a formulation expressed for the first time, captured a significant insight for the Christian church, which was until then fully Jewish.  Peter of course recognized that Cornelius was an upright man. This was eminently manifest in many details that had just been revealed to him: Cornelius’s worship of God; his gifts to the poor; his courteous treatment of the Jewish subject people; and – importantly – through the authorization that he had received by the a appearance of an angel; and by what the angel declared to him — that his prayers and alms had ascended to heaven as a memorial offering; and by the explicit direction to find a man named Peter in Joppa, who would give him a special message.

All this brought Peter to put into words an amazing concept [Note that Luke places these words in the mouth of the apostle himself]:

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” [10:34-35].

Here it is: God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right,” a concept barely internalized by many of us.

Peter’s education has been traced carefully by Luke throughout his narrative:  Peter’s call by Jesus, his confession, his insight and dedication, his denial and remorse, his restitution, his leadership in the Christian community, his great sermon on the day of Pentecost, in which he declared that no other name existed under heaven by which we may be saved. In this passage Luke describes one more instructive event in Peter’s life, which would reveal Peter’s growth in understanding. And it would mark a milestone in the understanding that Peter and his Jewish friends would internalize: that God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

This Peter says this in the presence of his Jewish colleagues. It was he who said it, but it was surely an issue about which he and his fellow travelers toCaesarea, Jews and Gentiles together, would have talked. Between Peter’s vision and their arrival to the house of Cornelius not only Peter but those with him had pondered the significance of the vision.  And they were about to see how timely it was.  For this encounter with Cornelius would open up horizons beyond what any of them could ever have imagined: the idea that God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

Luke does not present this as a creative insight out of nothing: it came as the apostle and his friends reflected on the vision and matched it with the specific developments they experienced in this affair.  The insight was a conclusion that naturally constructed from personal experience, in events that were both private [Peter’s vision] and public [the visit by Gentile messengers from Cornelius].

The progression of understanding continued as Peter and his Jewish friends came to know that Gentiles exist who fear God, whom God receives as He had received the Jews.  It would be an insight authorized by a dramatic event. Peter tells the story of Jesus to these Gentiles and concludes with the commission given him [10:42-43], which was “to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead,” a point about which all the prophets testify, he says, so that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” At that moment, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” [10:44]. We wonder what that was.  What actually happened?  What did Peter see? Whatever that “coming upon” of the Spirit was, it was visible, objectified, irrefutably real. And it was so real in the Christian community that is was unmistakable.  Peter would stress that point when he had to defend himself before his Jewish Christian friends in Jerusalem.  Whatever it was, it demonstrated that Gentiles were being grafted into the nascent church.  They were being received into the church on an equal plane with the Jewish Christians.  The Gentiles — Gentiles from very uncultured backgrounds, otherwise quite ignorant of God’s ways — were imediately embraced by the Holy Spirit in the Christian community.  They would soon take key roles in the advance of the gospel; they provided a new creative impulse in the proclamation of the good news to the wider world.

It would eventually reach a Gentile like me.  Admittedly unworthy of his mercy, I am now fully accepted into the community of God’s family, a standing as good as all the rest, even the apostles (II Pet 1:2).

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. [Rom 11:33-36]

[For more on Peter’s insights in these verses go to Contested Issues, “The State of Those Who Have Never Heard.”]


*9. The State of Those Who have “Never Heard”


Below is a letter I prepared to [but did not] send to a theological professor on the subject of the “heathen,” those who have “never heard.” This is a subject of great importance and interest to most people when it comes to considering the exclusive claims of Christ. And as the world gets smaller the issue becomes ever more urgent. But the issue seems to be addressed in black/white terms [saved / lost :: heaven / hell] with no recognition of the sensitivity of the scriptures to the authentic moral struggles in every heart. I know of a prominent anthropologist who freely proclaims that he hates Jesus because he is so exclusive, and of course denies Jesus or the Bible any authority on those grounds. This letter attempts to show how much more welcoming the scriptures are to those who have not heard than is broadly proclaimed by the church.

As will be seen, the argument arises from the statement by Peter when he met Cornelius: “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” [Acts 10:34-35]

So, good news: God has opened the way for anyone, even those who have an imperfect knowledge of Him, to be “accepted by him.” At the same time there is a back side to this concept: if God is so discerning about the authentic search for truth and mercy in every heart, and is so eager that “all come to repentance,” then what of those of us who have heard of his mercy and continue to spurn God’s mercy? The more we know, the more we are responsible. How great is the responsibility of those of us to have heard!

Dear Professor P.

Recently I discovered your book, Hell … , in our church library. I found your argument clearly developed and in many ways I agreed with it. However, I want to respond to your discussion on the condition of “Those who have never heard,” which you take up as an additional question at the end of your book. In that discussion you say, “I agree with J. I. Packer that ‘we have no warrant from Scripture to expect that God will act [savingly] in any single case where the Gospel is not yet known.’ Packer correctly contends that ‘living by the Bible means assuming that no one will be saved apart from faith in Christ, and acting accordingly.’”

My concern is to present a somewhat different viewpoint than yours, in hopes of getting some help on this point. It is, it seems to me, an increasingly relevant issue in the modern world, as we are having more direct contact with peoples unlike ourselves. In a small bible study I have in my home (sometimes it tends toward being a bull session more than a bible study) the condition of those who are outside the main line of revelation comes up in some form in virtually every meeting. It happens to come up every day, in a sense, in my professional work.

Some background on myself: I became a Christian at a young age, was active in Young Life, InterVarsity and marginally in Navigators, went to a far-away country when I was 22 years old because it was the most unreached place I knew about, spent altogether 9 years there [over a span of a total 16 years], eventually completed a degree in anthropology and now I am teaching anthropology here. [We have not gone back to Central Asia because of a special child.] Because of my study of anthropology I have to deal with issues that most of my Christian friends do not. At the same time it has continued to be my personal practice to turn to the scriptures every day; I still seek God’s grace by the day. So even though I don’t read theology I do read my Bible; for many years it has been by practice to read every word through from the beginning to the end and then to begin again, so I’ve been through the scriptures [with a pencil] many times. My views on the condition of “those who have never heard” have thus been shaped by the dual condition of my world: Every day I deal with the nature of peoples unlike ourselves and everyday I seek wisdom in the scriptures. This then is to present my current understanding of scripture on this issue and to ask your critical response.

You dispense with a point by Pinnock [whom I have not read] by seeming to imply that “holy pagans” are only those that appear in the biblical text, people with whom God has according to scripture dealt with directly. And you deal with the Cornelius affair by noting that Cornelius and his household had already heard of Jesus’s life and work. Do you believe that his prayers and alms somehow testify to a Christian pietism?

There are important matters in the Cornelius affair that you pass over. That the incident is described several times in Acts suggests that the story is emphasizing something important about God’s work among the gentiles. In the story an angel declares that Cornelius’s prayers have ascended “as a memorial before God.” And the combination of a dream and Cornelius’s report of his experience teaches Peter something that we cannot pass over: “I perceive that God is no respecter of persons but that in every nation those who fear him and do what is right are accepted of him.” [Acts 10:34,35] His conclusion seems to me to conflict with the opinion you express in your book. It is true that Peter further down says that Jesus “is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead” [v 42] — that is an issue I would like to address below, in the context of the key verse in John 14. In any case, we cannot take this as an off-hand remark. And it cannot be regarded as merely Peter’s opinion; it was also Luke’s and Paul’s, as presumably Acts was written as part of a defense [or at least a formal introduction to the work ] of Paul. Luke’s interest in gentiles has been manifest already throughout his texts. It is he who gives us the most detail on how Jesus offended his own home town: he has Jesus pointing out that Elijah was sent to a gentile widow, not a Hebrew one; and that a gentile leper was cleansed, not a Hebrew one. [Lk 4:20-30] Surely the implication that God deals with gentiles was not missed by anyone in that event. And it is Luke who gives us Jesus’s story of the Samaritan who was, as we say, “good.” (He was born into a heretical community, with no apparent direct revelation from God: could he be consigned to hell?) The attention that Luke gives to Peter’s dream in the Cornelius affair turns out to be a kind of climactic example of God’s work among the gentiles. The same Peter who has declared that there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved has learned something he didn’t know: that God “accepts” those “in every nation” who “fear Him, and do what is right.”

This is consistent with the Pauline references to God “passing over former sins” [Rom 3:25]. In Athens Paul says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, [by raising] him from the dead.” [Acts 17:30, 31] What could it mean to “pass over” or “overlook” the “times of ignorance”? And who would the ignorant be? Presumably the Atheneans, and by extension all mankind. So did God pass over the sins of the ignorant in the past? If so, when does the “now” begin? At the time of the death of Christ? Just at the time Paul preached to them? Does the presentation of the gospel introduce a new responsibility to the hearers?

Another passage you do not mention is Jonah. Remember that Jonah was offended that God would accept the repentance of the Ninevites. In the end — and this might be considered a key point of the whole story — God says to Jonah, “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” [4:11] [The “left and right hand” presumably refers to an absence of knowledge about ritual rules of cleanliness, for some ancient peoples (the Semites, which is carried over into current Muslim practice) used the left hand for unclean personal activities and the right for clean and public activities; the Ninevites, like most of us, did not keep such rules.] Surely the implication here is that God is willing to be responsive to repentant individuals, even those among “the nations.” We understand that the point of the gospel is that we should “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live sober, upright and godly lives in this present world” [Titus 2: 11-14; and 3:3-7]. True, we are not saved by good works but we are saved unto good works. At the same time the OT view is that “no good thing will God withhold from those who walk uprightly” [Ps 84:11], etc.; uprightness is enjoined throughout the scriptures.

This is not to say that other religious traditions are somehow OK. Peter does not say that religious traditions are “accepted” by God; only repentant hearts. And such, says Peter, are found “in every nation.”

Now, how can this be true and Jesus still be “the only way to the Father” [Jn 14:6] or “the only name by which we must be saved”? It seems to me the scriptures are clear how Jesus is the only way: “he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” [I Jn 2:2]. There is no other source of the deliverance from the wrath of God than the atoning work of Christ for us. and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.

Thus, I take it that God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself; He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. That there are people in other societies who repent and seek the mercy of their creator [whose works abundantly declare His glory] is what Peter discovered in the Cornelius affair and what Paul meant by sins that were passed over. None of those people who have not “heard” of course earns acceptance by God any more than we do; none of them deserves His mercy any more than we do; but the atonement, according to scripture, is sufficient for them as well as for us. The invitation to them just as to us is to “be reconciled to God.”

I do not refer of course to “the wicked”, a term you reserve for those to be placed in hell. In every society, I presume, the difference between the wicked and those who would be good if they could is recognizable, at least to God, to whom every heart is open, every thought and intention is known.

So I wonder if this means that there are degrees of responsibility. I, with all the spiritual advantages that I have, am more responsible before God than the Yanomamo tribesman who has little knowledge of God. What I understand from scripture is that God cares about every soul, and He knows every man’s heart as well as mine. He knows what every individual understands about Him, and even though he is guilty, like me, of sin, he is also free before God to cast himself upon God’s mercy, just as I am. And God knows if he has done that just as He knows if I have done that.

You say on page 234 that you “bow before God’s sovereignty,” an admission that I take to mean that you are uncomfortable with your own summation of scripture on this issue. So am I. For a scholar like me who deals with specific details about the lives of these human beings it seems crucial that we understand more precisely how God deals with people outside the main lines of revelation. Indeed, in the history of anthropology a number of persons have given up on the gospel because of the supposition that the gospel teaches that there is virtually no hope for those who have never heard. Surely this is not the God of the Bible. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him [Jn 3:17].


== = = = = =

A Promise to the Dismayed


And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not,

in paths that they have not known I will guide them.

I will turn darkness before them into light,

the rough places into level ground.

These are the things I will do,

and I will not forsake them.


Isaiah 42:16


As modern technology has expanded our horizons, enabling us to have wider social and economic contacts, it has multiplied the possibilities for the use of our time, and the range of our life choices. More than any previous generation, most people living today have a wider range of opportunities for meeting people, for developing skills and education, for travel, for a widening social horizon. And with the escalating pace of improvements in communications and transportation the range of opportunities widens. This broadening of opportunities can be exhilarating, but it often has the opposite effect. An increased variety of choices heightens the difficulties of choosing the one (can there be more?) best choice. There are so many options, so many possibilities for the use of our time, skills and resources, that we can be dismayed. Every decision seems to foreclose all other options. The choice of one career seems to deny other interesting ones; the choice of a life mate excludes all other attractive individuals; the purchase of a house, a car, or whatever excludes other purchases. Resources are always scarce relative to the possibilities. In fact, the expansion of possibilities exposes how resource poor we are. The opportunities afforded by modern society, with all its wares, has not simplified the important decisions we have to make; they often make them more difficult.


Moreover, after we have made a crucial decision, we may feel hemmed in by the conditions that result. As new dilemmas and challenges emerge from choices already made we can be boxed into situations that become odious. Even if in the abstract the range of choices is large, for most of us the truly feasible options can be excruciatingly narrow. We can feel locked into circumstances beyond our control. Some of us live with conditions we hardly know how to bear. And even those of us who enjoy reasonable prosperity can be obliged by an unforeseen event to change plans, lose opportunities, perhaps even watch situations ruined, relationships ruptured, and visions shattered. A feature of the modern world seems to be a fragility of meaningful relationships, an impermanence of social contexts, and an uncertain sense of place in the world.

Either way, whether we happen to confront a range of choices that are bewilderingly diverse, or whether we happen to be locked into circumstances beyond our control, with dreams and hopes for the future shattered by unimagined or unforeseen turns of events — in any case, despite many modern conveniences and much seeming promise, we can feel both cast adrift and imprisoned. We can lack a sense of anchorage or secure place, without a certain and incontrovertible reference point by which to orient ourselves in a shifting world. My wife and I have often had such feelings. We have sometimes felt overwhelmed by a complicated range of choices on a vital issue, and at the same time felt constrained by circumstances that seemed agonizingly narrow. Sometimes we have been unsure where we belonged, where we should go, what we should do, as a swirl of uncontrollable situations bulldozed our dreams and visions.

The problem is no less difficult for the Christian, who wants to make choices appropriate to his or her understanding of God’s will. The Christian often struggles with such questions as “What does God want in this situation?”, “What is God doing?” or “Why is God allowing this?” Obviously God is not confused; he doesn’t change his mind; he is not surprised by the issues we confront; he is not limited to circumstances that seem to hem us in; and he has not abandoned us, despite our feelings, when our visions evaporate like the early dew. The issue for the Christian is to learn how to find anchorage in God despite the continual shifting of relations in the contemporary world.


A particular verse has in this regard helped us in times of confusion and doubt, even in despair, by providing a sense of anchorage when circumstances were painful and opportunities limited, and when wise decisions seemed crucial: “I will lead the blind by a way they know not; I will lead them in paths they have not known; I will make darkness light to them, and crooked places straight. These things I will do for them and not forsake them” (Isa 42:16, RSV). The first time this promise struck me with particular force was when I was drafted into the army. The draft notice was a huge interruption in my plans. The notice forced me into a situation I expected to loathe and would have done anything to avoid. It meant two years of my life would be wasted (but probably without danger; this was before Vietnam). It was at this time that God’s promise in Isaiah to lead the blind along unforeseen paths, making rough places sooth, seemed to speak directly to my situation. Through this promise God seemed to be saying that he was in control of my life and affairs; he would be with me through this “darkness” (as I saw it); and he would do new things in my life, despite the digression (as I saw it). The clause, “I will lead you in paths you have not known” suggested that there could be a purpose in this seeming waste of time. As it turned out, those two years were among the most significant in my life, for apart from other gains from the experience I met and married a wonderful woman. Since then, in the years that Rita and I have been together, when faced with disappointing developments, when forced to detour from activities and plans we thought important, when forced to deal with problems that seemed to come out of nowhere, to interrupt our plans, we have found comfort in this promise. It has often reminded me that God does not forsake us but is a source of strength, stability, and direction when we face “crooked” turns in our affairs.


“I will lead the blind where they know not,” God says to the Hebrews, and “in paths they have not known.” It was a promise to a people caught up in a world they had failed to foresee — even though, in fact, they had been repeatedly forewarned. This verse appears in a section of Isaiah that can be read as specifically addressed to the Hebrews in their exile — that is, after Jerusalem was destroyed, when the Jews were carried off into Babylonia and elsewhere in the fertile crescent; this section reads as if directly addressed to the Hebrews in their exile. There are specific references to their exilic situation: notably, to the burning of the temple (Isa. 64:10-11), to their grief and humiliation, and to Cyrus (the Achaemenid Persian emperor who in 538 B.C. invited the Jews within his domains to return to their homeland, and gave orders for the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem). The actual time when this section of Isaiah (chapters 40 to the end) was written is therefore disputed, as Isaiah himself lived well before the exilic period. Many scholars date this section to a later author, perhaps to a tradition of authors who consciously cherished and propagated the writings of Isaiah, and appended other prophetic utterances to Isaiah’s original text. Other scholars regard this part of the book of Isaiah as a production of the great prophet himself, its strikingly graphic images of the exilic period having been written prophetically under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This dispute is of no major concern to our treatment of this text here, as both groups agree that the text had a special significance for the Hebrews in their exile. I want to examine it therefore as a text with specific relevance to the Hebrews in that period, in their exilic contexts. In this sense the exilic experience was (as everything the Hebrews experienced in scripture) a kind of parable of the human condition. The Hebrews in their suffering are an archetype of every one of us in a state of alienation and exile. It is not uncommon — and it may be increasingly so — for people to sense that the world has lost order and is spinning out of control. This promise to lead the blind in new, unfamiliar paths, to make darkness light and rough places smooth seems especially poignant for our times because it is so directly aimed to people whose world has caved in and whose life no longer makes sense.



In the period before the collapse of Jerusalem the two Hebrew kingdoms, Israel and Judah, had fallen into decline. In the northern kingdom of Israel Jeroboam had introduced golden calves to be worshipped as the gods who delivered Israel out of Egypt (I Kings 12: 25-33). Israel had a series of kings who were uniformly unfaithful to Yahweh, and only a few of the kings of Judah sought to honor Yahweh. Because of the indifferent commitment of the Hebrews to Yahweh, prophets began to proclaim Yahweh’s word to the Hebrews, but they received little heed, especially from the elite. But the prophets would eventually be honored, and their writings cherished, but in their lifetimes most of them were treated with indifference, if not hostility. And even after the kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 — an event that should have caused alarm in the kingdom of Judah — the rulers of Judah made little attempt to return their people to the sole worship of Yahweh. Manasseh (686 to 642 BC) polluted the sanctuary of Yahweh by bringing into the temple the symbols of worship to Tophet and other Canaanite gods. The temple built by Solomon and dedicated to Yahweh with great solemnity became a shelter for cult prostitutes, male and female, who served alien gods (II Kings 21:2-8).

By this time the people of Judah and Israel had drifted so far from God that they had effectively forgotten the Mosaic tradition. The Torah, the books of Moses, which gave specific directions for the Hebrews, had fallen into such disuse that the elite of Judah didn’t recognize it when it was found in the temple during the time of Josiah (639 to 609 B.C.). When the contents of the book were read to Josiah he was disturbed because many of the cult rituals forbidden in the Torah, specifically in Deuteronomy, were commonly practiced among the people of Judah. Josiah’s attempts to reform were serious but short lived, and soon after his untimely death it was evident that many Jews were again worshipping the foreign gods that had been forbidden under his rule. Indeed there was much confusion about which gods to worship. People were unsure which god and which rituals worked best. After the destruction and burning of Jerusalem some Hebrew women told Jeremiah that such a that catastrophe had occurred because they had left off worshipping a Canaanite god whom they called “the queen of heaven.” They told Jeremiah (44:17-18), “We will do every thing that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour our libations to her, as we did [formerly], both we and our fathers, our kings and out princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil.”


It was to Israel and Judah in this period of decadence that many of the great Hebrew prophets were sent. Through Isaiah Yahweh upbraided the Hebrews for rebelling against him. They had become a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evil doers, sons who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy one of Israel, they are utterly estranged. . . . [T]he whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it” [Isa 1:2-6].

Jeremiah is remembered because of his fierce condemnations of the Hebrews and his prophecies of destruction: “I will appoint over them four kinds of destroyers, says the Lord: the sword to slay, the dogs to tear, and the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth to devour and destroy. And I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” [Jer 15:3,4]. “Your wealth and your treasures I will give as spoil, without price, for all your sins, throughout all your territory. I will make you serve your enemies in a land which you do not know” [Jer 15:12?14a]. “Because your fathers have forsaken me, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshipped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law, and because you have done worse than your fathers, refusing to listen to me; therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods [Jer 16:11-13a]. So offensive was the behavior of the Hebrews that God forbad Jeremiah to pray for them: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and cereal offering, I will not accept them; but I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence” [Jer 14:12].

Indeed the intent of the book of Chronicles (it was one book, on two scrolls) was to document the apostasy of the Hebrews. The book concludes with a severe condemnation of the Hebrews, showing that Israel and Judah had earned Yahweh’s wrath: He “sent persistently to them by his messengers,” said the Chronicler (II Chrn 36: 15-6), “because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, till the wrath of Yahweh rose against his people, till there was no remedy.”


God in his frustration and anger allowed the Hebrews to fall into the hands of marauders. The northern kingdom, Israel, fell first (721 B.C.). When the southern kingdom, Judah, came under pressure from the Assyrians, its leaders turned to Egypt for help. In the mean time the Assyrians were being defeated by the Chaldeans, who took Nineveh in 612 BC. It was the Chaldeans who invaded Judah (c. 600-598 B.C.). They forced Judah to pay tribute and set Jehoiachin on the throne for a brief time (in 598) but returned to place Zedekiah his uncle in his stead. Nine years later Zedekiah effected his own demise and the final humiliation of Jerusalem by rebelling against the Chaldeans. When in exasperation their army descended upon Jerusalem, King Zedekiah resisted, rejecting the counsel of Jeremiah. The Chaldean siege of the city lasted eighteen months. The people of Jerusalem starved. Jeremiah recorded the slow death of the city: “infants and babes faint in the streets of the city” (Lam 2:11); “children faint for hunger at the head of every street” (Lam 2:19). Eventually they ate their own offspring: “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children” (Lam 4:10). Finally, as the king fled the city he was captured and obliged to witness the slaughter of his sons, and then deprived of his own sight. He and the other nobility were carried off to Babylon while the poorest of the Jews were left to till the soil. Jerusalem was sacked and burned. The editor of Chronicles (II Chrn 36:17-20) explains why such a calamity occurred: The Lord

“brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged, he gave them all into his hand. And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. And they burned the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels. He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons.”

A psalmist in horror witnessed the Chaldean invasion of the city:

“O God, the heathen have come into thy inheritance; they have defiled thy holy temple; they have given the bodies of thy servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of thy saints to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water round about Jerusalem, and there was none to bury them” (Psalms 79:1-3).

Again says the psalmist (Psalms 74: 4-8):

“Thy foes have roared in the midst of thy holy place; At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. And then all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers. They set thy sanctuary on fire; to the ground they desecrated the dwelling place of thy name. They burned all the meeting places of God in the land.”



It was in their exile that the Jews began to reflect on what they had done. It was then that they began to pay attention to what Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets had been saying in previous times, when the bulk of the Hebrews had spurned the warnings and admonitions of the prophets. In their humiliation and defeat the people of Judah began to internalize what they should have learned long before. Yahweh had said, through the pen of Isaiah, “O that you had hearkened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea” [Isa 48:18, 19]. Had they listened to the prophets, they would have avoided the horrors of the exile, they would have known God’s favor. The Hebrews had supposed that they had God’s favor; they had supposed that they would be spared defeat because they were the custodians of Yahweh’s temple; they had supposed that because his temple was in Jerusalem he would not allow the city to fall (cf. Jer 7:1-15).

But they did not understand God’s ways. They somehow felt they were beyond having to live by his standards; it was enough to invoke his name, to claim his favor because he dwelt in Jerusalem, their capital city. So when the destruction came, and Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple burned, they were dismayed. They could not grasp that God would allow his city and his temple, his dwelling place, built by Solomon at great expense and dedicated with such fanfare and solemnity, to be destroyed; they could not imagine how he could allow his people to be carried off into captivity. They were, they felt, the children of the special friends of God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their kingdom was the kingdom of David, God’s servant. They had been conquerors, they had dominated Palestine: How could they now be so humiliated? Why were their lands taken from them, their children killed in the streets, their women ravished?

These people had been looking back to their past, remembering past glories, without noticing that God had allowed the world to change. God indeed was directly involved in the collapse of the world they had known. Isaiah [42:22-25] described them as “a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder. Who handed Jacob over to be loot and Israel to the plunderer? Was it not Yahweh, against whom we have sinned.”

It was to these Hebrews — defeated, humiliated, confused — that God made a particular promise: he would lead them through unfamiliar paths; he would make darkness light and rough places smooth; and he would by no means forsake them. The promise was composed for a people in confusion. And it was indeed in their confused state that the Hebrews began to pay attention to what the prophets had been saying. The book of Chronicles in fact appears to have been edited into its extant form in order to instruct the Hebrews into the reasons why God had brought them to such a pass. Likewise, the second section of Isaiah in which this promise appears, was written to encourage the Hebrews through their most severe hour of trial. Isaiah 40 and following consists of a series of promises affirming that, even though the world of the Jews had been utterly wasted, God himself was alive and in control. He still had designs for them, which could be known if they would but redirect their attention to him, and let him lead them through this difficult period.

This section of Isaiah is therefore rich in hope and promise; and it is filled with encouraging words for a people deprived of a sense of place and significance. That indeed is part of the appeal of our verse to me, for the promise to lead the blind in new paths, to make what is dark light, what is rough smooth, is not an abstract formulation for religious people who have always had their lives put together, who always made the right choices. Rather, it is for people who have known utter defeat, hopelessness, and ruined visions, and furthermore bear a sense of guilt for having betrayed God and so thwarted their own best ambitions. In particular, our verse is addressed to people whose faculties of perception have been blunted, who were foolish and unseeing, and now were quite lost. God reassures them that he has not forsaken them forever. They remain his people: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you,” he says (Isa 43:1), “I have called you by name; you are mine.”  “Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant,” he says (Isa 44:1-3), “for I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour my spirit on your offspring.” And most notably, he promised to bring his people back to their homeland. Yahweh says (Isa.49:12), “They will come from afar, some from the north, some from the west, some from the region of Sitim.” To Jerusalem in the exilic period God offered a specific promise [Isa 49:19]: “Though you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste, now you will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.” And [Isa 60:15,16] “Although you have been forsaken and hated, . . .  I will make you the everlasting pride and joy of all generations.”

Such were the promises in which the Jews could take comfort collectively, as a whole. But some words of comfort in Isaiah were aimed at people forced to bear particular hardships: To those who would be herded across the desert and obliged to ford the rivers on foot Yahweh said [Isa 43:2?3], “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” To the ashamed and guilty, Yahweh said [Isa 44:23], “O Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” To those who lacked hope and the strength to press on he said [Isa. 40:27-31], “Why do you complain, ‘my way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God?’ Do you not know? . . . [T]he Lord gives strength to the weary .. and power to the weak.” To the women who had lost their husbands or who could never marry because of the paucity of males Yahweh said [Isa 54:1,4], “Sing, O barren woman, .. shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband . . . Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. . . . For the Lord, the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer.” There was even a specific promise for men deprived of their sexual powers [Isa. 56:4,5]: “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” And of course there was, as we have noted, the promise to people who were blind: to lead them along paths unknown, to turn the darkness into light, to make crooked routes straight, a never to forsake them.



Now, consider the requisite for this promise: You have to be blind. The promise was specifically addressed to the unseeing. Some, we have noted, were deliberately blinded by the Babylonians, but others would have been sightless for other reasons. The promise was given to them, and would have been a basis for comfort for them as they were led off into a strange and alien land. But the promise was of course intended for the people of Judah as a whole, for even the sighted felt lost, shaken and confused by the destruction of their society. This promise is for people who feel blind, as many Jews felt at this time. The world they had known had disappeared, as it were, without warning — for they had missed, even steadfastly ignored, all the signs. Now, far from their homeland, subjected to the dictates of barbarians, obliged to labor as menial servants, the Jews had no hope of recovering the world they had known, or even of being buried with their ancestors.

But of course this verse is directed to a wider audience than the Hebrews themselves. It was recorded and preserved because it applies so easily to the human condition: this is a promise for subsequent generations of people who have felt blind, who have had trouble sorting out the disorder, confusion, and calamities that befell them, seemingly without warning. This is a promise for all of us when we cannot grasp what is happening, and dread what might be coming, when we cannot define what is important and are dismayed by the havoc that God allows.

I have felt this way at times and presume such confusion is common to others; I presume it to be a condition that most of us experience one time or another, possibly often. A well educated young woman trapped in a humiliating situation once said to me, “I feel I am completely unequipped for the world I’m living in.” The broad shifts in social worlds in recent years have deprived many people of a sense of how to prepare for the future. They are obliged to live from one day to the next, groping for anchorage — stability, certainty, security — in a world lacking fixed points. This is why God’s promise to lead the blind along new tracks has meant so much to me. I have felt blind often — at least I have qualified for the promise! Of course, there are lots of times when one feels assured of what’s ahead and how to cope with it. But my experience has been that I am most apt to overlook what God wants me to notice when I am most confident. It is deceptively easy to behave like the Pharisees, who thought they had understanding (John 9:41) but in fact missed the greatest revelation in history. As Isaiah said (6:10), there is a seeing that doesn’t perceive and a hearing that doesn’t understand — conditions of which the Pharisees are the archetypical exemplification. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem he exclaimed, “Would that today you knew the things that make for peace. But now they are hid from your eyes.” They would be humiliated and Jerusalem wrecked, he said, “because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Lk 17:41-44). It is possible to identify their failure, and then become guilty of it ourselves. We fail to recognize God’s hand at work; we can suppose we see when we do not. That was the problem of the Laodicean church, who supposed they were rich, prosperous, and had no needs, ignorant that they were “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17). The problem was not their wretchedness, pitiableness, poverty, blindness, and nakedness; we human beings are like that, in the eyes of God, according to scripture. What was offensive to God was that the Laodiceans were oblivious to their actual condition. Supposing they were rich when they were destitute, they failed to offer the one requisite for God’s favor — contriteness, poverty of spirit — which would qualify them for God’s blessing and acceptance.

The scriptural position is, that a broken and contrite spirit is all we have to offer anyway (Ps 51:17). “Heaven is my throne,” the Lord said through Isaiah (66:1,2) “and earth is my footstool. But this is the man to whom I will look: he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” If the Bible is clear about anything, it is that the only thing you and I have to offer God is our wretchedness, our pitiableness, our poverty, our blindness, and our nakedness. And to such — who come to him with such poverty of spirit, effecting no claim of worthiness — he offers his cleansing, his inner renewing, his wealth, his sight, his covering. That is the point of his promise to lead us in new paths: It is a promise to those who know their blindness.

So those who acknowledge an absence of clear sight, God promises to lead. The promise to the Hebrews was that he would lead them in paths they had not known — certainly a challenge for the blind. It’s the familiar pathways that are easiest for the blind, I presume; the sounds, perhaps the smells, can become familiar clues to one’s location, so that one can get used to conditions along a well known trajectory. But that was not in store for the Hebrews. Not only were the people to whom this verse was directed blind, but they were also to be taken into strange places. No familiar clues would be given, to which the Hebrews could cue their expectations. They would be led. That is how it is for us; we would like to know what’s coming, so we can prepare. We would like the world to be predictable, so we could know what to expect. The problem is, there are many unpredictable dimensions of life. It has always been that way. But the particular appeal of God’s promise to lead the blind by unfamiliar paths is that it seems so especially pertinent to the modern — even the post-modern — condition. More and more people all over the world are having to adjust to new and daunting situations. The ground sways beneath us; old points of certainty are less certain as new challenges arise and compound upon each other.

The scriptures suggest that God never intended that we should be comfortable and assured in our own abilities to “see” and prepare and act. They suggest that we human beings won’t get it right — the life that pleases God, that is — without his help, without his guidance. That in fact was his objection to the Pharisees, who developed their particular method of “godliness” in the wake of the exile. They would finally, they thought, get it right by living by the law strictly and precisely. And so, with attention fixed on the rules, they missed the shifts in the ground under them and the new challenges that God was preparing for them. Thinking they could see, they were blind, having turned obedience to God into a system. With all the tenets of the system in place they no longer had to listen to a personal God; they no longer had to await signs from a God who was willing to be engaged with them in their human problems (Jer 13:11). Life with God is not a system but a walk, in which through varying circumstances we learn to watch for cues from him; we learn to seek his spiritual insights for the moment. It’s not that rules are abolished or that the system in its broad outlines can be replaced; it’s that the rules can never be sufficient. In real life the commands of God have to be applied to new situations, one after another. For the life of faith one needs the counsel, leadership, and guidance of a living God who knows our pain, humiliation, and defeat. The life of faith cannot work without a meaningful sense of relationship to him. The spiritual walk can never be a system; it’s a walk, often in uncertainty, or at least in unfamiliar settings, where the signposts are unclear, or are displayed, as it were, in an alien script.

It is in the darkness that God promises to provide light and to make the crooked places straight, and the rough places smooth. This life of faith is a walk whose central reality is a God who understands, who sees ahead, who knows how to lead and stabilize as we traverse the darkness, who can take us through the rough places. He says to us, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go” [Isa. 48:17,18]. His promise is to lead people who are dependent on him as sheep are on their shepherd [Isa. 49:9b?10]: “They will feed along the ways, on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall smite them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.”



So this verse is really about the life of faith. In the darkness we learn to trust in God. The promise to those who walk in the dark appears in the latter half of Isaiah, the part written to the Hebrews in the confusion and despair of their exile. The Lord through Isaiah challenged the Hebrews:

Who among you fears the Lord, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies on his God? [Isa 50:10]

The preeminent feature of the godly walk is faith. Paul said, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor 5:7). Indeed, Paul said, “I live by faith” (Gal 2:20). The faith that God calls us to is exercised in the confusion of life, in the interruptions and distractions.

Real life is never as orderly as we think it ought to be. And yet it is in the discursiveness of life that God works. Jesus exercised his greatest impact in the distractions and interruptions. A long section of the gospel of Luke [9:51 to 19: 48] is constructed as a series of interruptions in Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem. He was marching to his death; the tension builds as he travels southward from Galilee, along the way encountering people in need — a repentant tax collector, a blind beggar, a lawyer seeking the greatest commandment, and so on. In the interruptions, in the encounters that appeared distracting, Jesus demonstrated God’s character. In our lives unwanted distractions and unforeseen events are occasions for discovering God’s power, mercy, and love. That’s how God intended us to live — not that we should be disorganized, without a sense of direction, but that through the interruptions that seem to deflect off course, and through the encounters, surprises, and traumas of life, we might find the hand of God. That is the life of faith — being open to the new things he introduces into our lives, finding him real in a dysfunctional world. God operates even — and especially — in the discursive affairs of life.

It is in the major disruptions of life that God promises to lead us. The promise is specifically addressed to those persons severely broken and shaken by failure, defeat, and loss. It is for people traumatized by unplanned failure, bereavement, or hardship. In this verse God says that, even if you have been blinded — indeed especially if you are sightless — he will lead you and help you through the turns in life for which you are unprepared. The person to whom this verse is directed is forced to take steps in the dark, in a world that has lost predictability, where the path is unfamiliar and twisting. Micah (4:10) lived long before the exile of the Jews, but he foretold it and promised that they would be delivered precisely through such a traumatic experience: “You shall go to Babylon. There you shall be rescued, there the Lord will redeem you from the hand of your enemies.” There — in Babylon, in the place of humiliation and defeat, of utter dismay, and confusion, where nothing is as it should be, where God seems to have abandoned people to their deserts, and to worse than they deserve — there, the prophet says, “you will be redeemed.” Prophesying at about the same time as Micah, that is, in the eighth century B.C., Hosea (2:14,15) foresaw the shattering effect of the exile on the Hebrews. Though painful, he said, it would purify them of their idolatry: “Behold, I will allure her [speaking of the Hebrew people as his spouse] and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her — there I will give her her vineyard and there she shall answer as in the days of her youth.”

The exilic experience of the Hebrews, cruel as it was, was an effective teacher. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem and Judah they were religiously a different people. The uncertainty about their spiritual loyalties was gone. Never again would there be among the Hebrews such a profligate worship of other gods. They learned, finally, through their suffering to have no other god besides Yahweh; there would never again be any doubt that he was the god of the Hebrews; he it was that they would obey, for they had learned that he was a jealous god (Ex 20:5) and would exact retribution for their sins. From this lesson, of course, came their attempts to formulate Yahweh’s law into the elaborate system of rules that would become known as Phariseeism.



This brings us to another aspect of the life of faith. Looking for signs of God�s will, listening for indications of how he will guide through the discursiveness of life � this is not a religious life. The promise that he would lead the blind in novel paths has nothing to do with religion. Religion is different from the life of faith. “Religion” refers to logically constructed formulations about God, truth, and virtue. Religion consists of coherently organized and suasively argued systems of thought; it is structurally manifested in defined roles and statuses in the religious community, and behaviorally manifested in stylized forms of worship. Religion is organized and structured. The whole purpose of religion is to establish collective understandings, standardize the forms of worship, and stipulate relations in the religious community. The religious life seeks predictability. The properly religious attitude seeks a way to deal with every situation, to develop in advance a moral reaction to every exigency.

The life of faith and obedience has other agendas and seeks the will of God from an entirely different viewpoint. It aims to conform to God’s will in the discursive, unforseen, unwanted developments of life. It entails, as the Apostle Paul put it, sightless walking (II Cor 5:7). The believer, he said, should walk not by sight, but by faith in the One who has perfect vision and complete foresight, and has demonstrated his love for us. It entails trusting God, clinging to him in the interruptions that punctuate our lives, in circumstances not of our making, in challenges for which we feel unprepared and over which we have little control. The life of faith is essentially enabled by the help of God who is active and transcendent in our affairs. The believer knows that God’s ways are higher than our ways; his purposes for his people are made known only in the broadest sense, so that his particular guidance for us, in our specific circumstances, can never be fully predicted. We seldom know his specific plans for our lives, but instead we come to know his presence and his enablement in the discursiveness of affairs, as life unfolds.

In each new decision, each new relationship, each fresh encounter, there are possibilities for his guidance we may not have foreseen. When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t give them much advance information to plan on. He simply said, “Follow me.” What a turn of events for their lives his contact with them was. How radically he reshaped their lives and their experience. They were always only almost understanding what he was doing, what he was teaching them. Events outstripped the disciples’ ability to process what they had experienced. They were often left to ponder what had just happened. And indeed, despite Jesus’s specific predictions, they were quite unprepared for the abrupt end of his life. They were terrified and dismayed by his capture, torture, and crucifixion. And they were equally unready for his resurrection. Furthermore, when he spent time with them in the days after his resurrection he gave them no clear notion of what to expect next. He left them no blueprint on how to continue the movement, how to start a church, not even directions on how to organize groups. It was natural for them to want to know, before he departed from them, what would happen next “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). His answer was, “It is not for you to know.” Instead of a manual for the organization of a religious movement he gave them a promise: “You shall receive power.”

Hardly had he ascended when they set about organizing. It was ordinary human behavior to concern themselves with structure: In choosing a replacement for Judas they were performing a “religious” activity. Perhaps that act was useful; as far as the early Christian community was concerned. Matthias, who was chosen, was a faithful witness of the teachings and works of Jesus; indeed, reputedly, like all the others except John, he met a violent death for his witness. But we are able to see, from the vantagepoint of hindsight, that this simple act of the early apostles turned out to be of little note in the development of the church and the advance of the gospel. As God’s plan unfolded there were unforeseen turns of events — disappointments, victories, challenges, opportunities, gains for the gospel — that surpassed the imagination of the small, timid cluster of followers left behind by Jesus. The community of believers expanded at least fifty fold within a couple of months after Jesus’s public humiliation and demise.


Moreover, the church not only grew in numbers, but also in horizons. The persecution that followed the martyrdom of Stephen drove the church into non-Jewish communities. Within fifteen years the ethnically diverse church at Antioch would be sending out missionaries to gentiles. But before this took place, the conversion of one of the church’s most feared enemies, Saul, later Paul, radically changed its fortunes. God was leading the community of early believers by a way they could never have foreseen, turning hopeless situations into dazzling victories, and intractable problems into opportunities, to build a new kind of institution, his church. Through circumstances no one could have expected or imagined God led and provided for the nascent community of believers who founded his church. He advanced his work through the capture and incarceration of Peter and John (Acts 4:1-4; 5:17-26); through the beating and threatening of the disciples (Acts 5:40); through the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54+); through the persecution and dispersal of the disciples (Acts 8:1-8); and through the conversion and absorption of despised Samaritans into the community of believers (Acts 8:9-25).



In a sense, there is nothing new here; it’s the same message we find throughout scripture: The life of faith — this trust in God even if one is led into uncharted waters — is the same sort of life God’s faithful have always lived. They walked by faith. It is a life of trusting God in circumstances that seem beyond us, and impossible. We should not suppose that in earlier times the life of faith was easier. The men and women of faith who lived before us had to plough through the same cloud of confusion, doubt and short-sightedness that we do. Abraham was told to set out on a journey whose end and purpose he could not have known; God’s real purposes would be revealed to him only as he moved, and then only to a measured degree; God’s redemptive design is clearer to believers now than it ever was to him. He was no more ready to live that way than we are. Yet through the experience of moving through, as it were, the darkness, under the care and leadership of a God who clearly loved him, he came to know God as few have known him. The journeying, difficult as it must have been, was never the biggest problem: It was the strain of waiting for a promise, given in a private, intimate moment of revelation, to be fulfilled. The French biologist Georges Buffon once defined genius as “nothing less than a capacity for long patience.” Similarly, godliness is a long patience; it entails listening, watching, and waiting for God’s signs, obeying what we truly believe to be his will, even when there is little result, when the outcome is unclear.

No better example of this kind of life exists in scripture than Joseph. Despite his youthful sense that God was going to use him and do special things through him he spent years in confinement, far from his family, with no hope of seeing them again, and no reasonable basis for supposing that the visions of his youth would ever be realized. He clearly felt isolated and abandoned for much of his adult life: “I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon” (Gen 40:15). Clearly he longed for release: “Remember me when it is well with you,” he said to the chief butler; “make mention of me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house” (Gen 40:15). He had no choice about his condition: there were no avenues of escape. Even Joseph, one of the finest models of faith in scripture, felt alone, abandoned, isolated. “How long, O Lord!”, the psalmist cried. But it is often here, in the context of loneliness and isolation, that we find God. “Who is it”, Isaiah said (50:10), “that walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord his God?” Despite the humiliated detour in his life, Joseph escaped despair or bitterness in the confidence that God was still sovereign in his life.

If the life of Moses is any indication, the life of faith can entail disruption and the necessity to do what one feels unprepared for. Adopted into the wealth of Pharaoh’s family, Moses’s rash murder of an Egyptian to defend his people obliged him to flee the comforts he knew for an unfamiliar life in the desert. But in the land to which he had fled he was able to settle comfortably, taking a wife and fathering children. Then, when he was well ensconced in his new land, God intervened, and ordered him to abandon his comfortable life and return to Egypt. There, where he had been a marked man, he was to effect the liberation of his people, the Hebrews, from their Egyptian taskmasters; he was to lead his people out of their bondage and into a land about which Moses knew nothing. What a massive interruption that was. His responses to this marvelous vision betrayed how deeply shaken he was: he stalled (“Who shall I say you are?”); he protested (“They will not believe me”); he claimed incompetence (“O Lord, I am not eloquent . . . I am slow of speech”); finally, he pled, “O, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person” (Ex 3:13; 4:1,10,13). God had interrupted at a most inconvenient time; moreover, the task he proposed entailed great risk, and almost certain failure. The man we now regard as a supreme exemplar of godliness felt unready, unqualified, incapable of obeying God’s call. It would have been easier to do something “religious” — to make a contribution, to piously encourage someone else to take up the challenge. God sees through such superficial self-serving piety: he requires instead a more sincere faith, a more ready willingness to obey. Moses, reluctantly, gave God what he wanted: a willing, if tremulous, spirit.

There is no finer representation of the life of faith in scripture than the march of the Hebrews through the wilderness under Moses’s leadership. Exodus (40:36,37) tells us that they were led by a cloud by day and a flaming fire by night: “Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward till the day that it was taken up.” But before the Hebrews could live that way � following the cloud or the fire dutifully, moving forward when it moved, staying put when it didn’t, always without prior notice — before that Moses had himself been obliged to learn to live that way. He learned to follow and obey as God led and directed, without prior notice, with little preparation, little indication of what to expect next, armed with nothing more substantive than God�s promise.

We could go through scripture considering how God called and led many of his servants in their weakness and how in unlikely situations, seemingly unprepared and unready, they faced new contexts where God could use them, where they could undertake tasks God had for them. David was called from the sheepfold to be anointed king of Israel (I Samuel 16); Amos was called from dressing sycamore trees and tending sheep to denounce the spiritual decadence of Israel and Judah (Amos 7:14,15); Jonah was called, indeed forced, to preach to Nineveh; Nehemiah, the king�s cupbearer, although more ready to undertake God�s work than Jonah, could not have known what courage, dogged persistence, and zeal his task would require. In New Testament times the conversion of Saul, who became the apostle Paul, exceeded the imagination of the early disciples. Paul himself was stretched into projects that were unthinkable. “This man,” the Spirit said to Ananias (Acts 9:15), “is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Paul, about whose life we know more than any of Jesus’s disciples, was one of the scripture’s richest examples of how a life of faith works in a diverse and changing world. He encountered hardships, setbacks, and numerous crises, once admitting (II Cor 1:8) that “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, and we despaired of life itself, but that was to make us rely on God.” God was the secure anchor for Paul through years of conflict and suffering.




God’s promise to lead the blind by unfamiliar paths and to open up the dark into light and to smooth out rough places has a special relevance for our current times. It is a cliche now that the world is changing radically. People all over the world are facing new challenges, new situations, new opportunities; for some, the range of choices expands beyond comprehension. It has recently been said that the current generation of young people can expect to change careers — not jobs, careers — three times in their lifetime (Megatrends Two Thousand, p. 137). Today’s younger generation faces a seemingly endless series of agonizing struggles over career decisions. The choices are so various and numerous, and the resources for pursuing them so limited, that every career decision, every job decision, every personal commitment, becomes a struggle. For important decisions we crave certainty, a sense of the expected, so that whatever is done is the “best” possible. Those of us who want to follow God’s will look for signs, clues — as if they were hidden, as if God’s will were a constant mystery. The truth is otherwise, of course. God wants to lead us and enable us. The whole weight of scripture is that even though the future is unclear God has plans for his people and provides for them. The problem is knowing his will for each decision as it has to be made.

Years ago a good friend of mine agonized about what she should take up as a career. She wanted to serve God. She struggled for months, uncertain what she should do with her life, and in particular, what she should do next. Eventually, in her scripture reading she encountered a verse from Isaiah (50:7): “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore I will set my face like a flint, and I know I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near.” The verse seemed to her an answer: If she cared so much about doing God’s will, she wouldn’t miss it, because God was near and would not let her be disgraced. She could go on, make a decision that seemed right, trusting him to lead her, and if that wasn’t the right course he would redirect her toward what he wanted her to do. She took a step and was led, along a circuitous course she could never have envisioned, eventually to a position as director of one of the most influential organizations for young people in the world. Professor Kenneth Pike has written that a ship that is not moving cannot be guided. If we are open to God’s direction and provision, he will make his will known to us, in due time, as we step out, sometimes as if in the dark. It is possible to walk through the discursive events of life in a radically changing world with God as our friend and guide, along a course that makes our life a creative and distinctive representation of his unique character. Despite the turns we should not have made, despite the failures that mar his work through us, he is still with us, ready to redirect, enable, and guide. We have only to acknowledge our blindness, to learn to obey him as he leads us — sometimes in paths with which we are quite unfamiliar, enlightening the darkness and smoothing out the rough places — and so discover in our daily walk a sense of his glory and power.


[A sermon delivered, June 2, 1989]


I shall lead the blind on their way

and guide them along paths they do not know

I shall turn darkness into light before them

and make straight their twisting roads.

These things I shall do without fail.

Isaiah 42:16 (Revised English Bible)



*10. Why I Believe in the Resurrection

IF YOU DOUBT, it is to you I write.


I had serious doubts during part of my college days, but now I am convinced that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.

I am convinced that any seeker of truth cannot avoid a strong impression of Christ�s resurrection as he ponders the responses of the Pharisees who opposed the resurrection, the disciples who at first disbelieved it, and Saul who persecuted those who believed it.

How did the Pharisees who opposed the resurrection give evidence of it? By what they didn’t do.

During Jesus’ life the Pharisees had murmured at Him for claiming that He could forgive sins. They had accused Him of being the prince of devils when He healed a demoniac, and had opposed His healing on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath day He had cast out an unclean spirit, healed a woman of an infirmity which had existed for eighteen years, and cured a man of dropsy. And when He healed a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath, they had gone out and discussed how they could destroy Him. They had tried to stone Him to death for saying. “I and the Father are one,” and had abused Him for His last claim that He was the Messiah, the Son of God. They had taunted Him with inveterate malice as He hung on the cross.

And after His death, they saw to it that His body was guarded, for to them His body was important. Recalling that the “imposter” had said at least five times that He would rise again the third day after His death, the chief priests and Pharisees asked Pilate to secure the tomb so that His disciples wouldn’t steal the corpse and claim He had risen. Making sure that there would be no fraud, the opposition did everything which human prudence and cunning could foresee to protect the body. They set a military watch outside the tomb and placed a. government seal above the entrance.

In view of all this, would the Pharisees conceivably have conspired to cause the body of Jesus to disappear? And when the resurrection story came out, would they not have produced the body if it had been in their possession? All they had to do to stop the story once and for all was produce the body. But when Jesus’ disciples began to preach His resurrection in the temple, and wouldn’t stop teaching Jesus as the Messiah, filling the whole city with this news, the Jews arrested them, questioned them, warned them, threatened them and beat them. But they didn�t do the crucial thing: produce the body.

If Jesus was dead, where was the evidence? The time had come, the time of desperation, for them to make an open show of the “fraud” of Jesus by presenting one final infallible evidence. Displayed to even a few witnesses, the corpse of Jesus would have revealed the false nature of this heresy and emptied the Apostles’ teaching of its influence. The Christian “way” would have come to an abrupt end. But the Pharisees didn’t produce the body of Jesus. They didn’t even claim to have the body. They didn’t mention the body.

Something had happened to Jesus’ body after it was placed in the tomb under guard. When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early on Sunday morning she found the tomb open, the seal broken, and the stone rolled aside.

They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, they have taken away my Lord!, she cried.

When the other women came to anoint Him, they also found no body, nor did Peter and John.

The guards, after recovering from the shock of seeing the angel remove the stone and announce the resurrection to the women, went straight to the chief priests and told them what had taken place. (The chief priests therefore must have known of the empty tomb as early as the disciples, if not before.) The religious authorities’ response to this news was significant: they bribed the guards to say that the disciples had stolen the body while they slept. (The New Testament writers let this explanation pass, as would a lawyer today, as a self-evident lie. Who can say what happens while he sleeps?)

But would the Jewish authorities have been so lenient with the guards for losing their evidence if they had sincerely believed the corpse had been lost through their negligence? After planning His destruction for several months, finally carrying it out successfully, and then personally arranging for the security of the body through the critical three-day test period, wouldn’t they have demanded the guards’ punishment instead of trying to insure their protection? These same authorities beat the disciples for speaking of Christ’s resurrection. Why didn’t they punish the guards for losing His body or try to get their Roman officers to punish them! Did they realize that it wasn’t within the soldiers power to keep the body?

But couldn’t the disciples, supposing there hat been a series of bungles by the guards and Pharisees, have succeeded in stealing the body?

Their lives deny this. Their initial reaction to news of the resurrection was unbelief. But later they were convinced of it. They considered them selves ordained of God to be witnesses to it. Why should such a change come over them, or why should they feel so strongly about what they knew was a lie?

On the first Easter morning when women came with the news of the empty tomb it seemed an idle tale to the disciples. They didn’t believe it. Even when they saw Jesus for themselves, they couldn’t believe it. Although He showed them His hands and feet, they thought He was a spirit. Similarly, some people today suggest that Jesus� resurrection was spiritual, not physical. But Jesus was eager to dispel that idea.

“See my hands and feet.” He said. “Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see me to have.”

“See, handle, see” were the words He used, for He wanted them to know that this was the same body which had been crucified. And while they still did not believe, He ate a piece of broiled fish from their table. If they were inclined afterward to wonder if they had seen a vision or had conjured their memory of Him into a sense of His presence, they could remember His eating fish. His body was physical.

But Thomas wasn’t present. The story of Jesus’ appearance didn’t convince him. What’s more, he wouldn’t believe it unless he saw Jesus for himself and put his hands into His wounds. Later when the Lord appeared to Thomas, He said, “Put your fingers here and see my hands. Put out your hand and place it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

“My Lord and my God!” was Thomas’s awed acknowledgment of belief.

Once they were convinced, the disciples considered themselves commissioned by God to testify to the resurrection. This was their high calling, their most pressing responsibility, their contribution to the world: to affirm the fact of His resurrection. Seven times in the Book of Acts they said they were witnesses to the resurrection. They set aside every menial task to allow full time to this ministry. They journeyed to the skirts of the then-known world, and many of them died violent deaths for maintaining that they were witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection.

What fanatics they have seemed to some. No clamoring social acclaim spurred them on to ignoble deaths. No upper room agreements could conceivably have induced them to preach and die for a lie. Surely they would have stopped short of this. Nor would moral maxims of their dead leader have inspired them to carry on the movement for which He had died. Their deception would have sabotaged the movement.

These men had been changed by an encounter with a Living Savior.

Certainly one of the most convincing evidences for the resurrection was its effect on the Apostles. Men who ran for their lives when He was betrayed, who watched Him die from afar, who hid away in fear when He was buried: these men became fearless evangelists in the face of persecution, threatening, even torturous deaths, once they had met the Risen Christ. The midnight gloom of the cross was dispelled by unforgettable contact with a Living, Glorious Savior. To death they insisted that they were not following “cleverly devised myths” when they preached the power and coming of Jesus, but that they were “eyewitnesses of His majesty.” They had “seen and heard and touched Eternal Life in the flesh.” And by this they had been changed. They were never the same.

But did Jesus appear only to His followers? Why not to His enemies?

Peter once said that Jesus was manifested “not to all the people, but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.” He showed Himself to Mary Magdalene and the other women, to the two disciples who were walking toward Emmaus, to the Apostles and to Peter and James individually, and to five hundred people who saw Him at one time. He was seen alive for a period of forty days. But only by His followers.

Still, one person who didn’t believe in Him saw the Risen Christ, a man notable for his unbelief, outstanding for his opposition to the Christian “way,” famous for his intolerance of the resurrection witnesses. (Many people have forgotten this remarkable fact about Saul of Tarsus.)

Saul was an unlikely man to conjure Jesus back into existence, hardly one whose memory would ever “quicken to a presence.” He not only rejected the Apostles’s witness, he actively opposed it and was an accessory to the first murder of a Christian. Adopting the Pharisaical zeal that had crucified Jesus and stoned Stephen, he aimed to stamp out this heresy. He couldn’t compromise with any part of it. To him it was a blight to the Jew, an insult to the Law, rebellion from the God of his fathers, to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God Incarnate, the Messiah. Liberator of Sinners, risen from the dead. And he sought to quench the idea, to bring the movement to a quick end.

Twelve times the New Testament says that Saul persecuted the Church. The long series of persecutions that continued through three centuries was aided in its beginning by Saul of Tarsus. By his own testimony he was violent in his attempts to destroy the Church, abusing Christians in the synagogues and trying to make them blaspheme, dragging them out of their homes to prison, traveling even to neighboring cities to arrest them.

But as he was traveling to Damascus, he and his friends were struck to the ground by a sudden light from heaven. A voice said, “Saul, why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus of Nazareth.” So Saul was confronted with the Risen Jesus. He was given a message: “The God of our fathers appointed you to see the Just One and to hear a voice from His mouth, for you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard.” “See, hear”: these words appear again in the Biblical record. And by what he saw and heard, the outstanding persecutor of the Early Church became a witness of the Risen Christ to the world.

His life was reversed. The destroyer of the Christian faith became its defender; the murderer of Stephen became a servant of the Christians; the persecutor became a sufferer. For the cause of Christ he endured mobs, beatings, imprisonments, perilous journeys, danger and physical affliction. Often near death, he received the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes five times, was beaten with rods three times, was stoned once, was shipwrecked three times and adrift at sea for several hours. In his frequent journeys he was in danger from rivers, robbers and personal enemies. He lived a life of hardship and labor, working for a living with his hands, having many sleepless nights. Hungry, thirsty, homeless and ill clad in cold and exposure, he was a spectacle to the world, an exhibition of weakness and disrepute, a fool for Christ, the refuse of the world, so that the Risen Christ could be manifested through him to all men. Although he was reviled, slandered, treated as an impostor, ignored by some, punished by others, held in disrepute by many, his heaviest sufferings were his anguish for his unbelieving Jewish brethren and his anxiety for the spiritual welfare of the churches. Yet paradoxically, despite his sorrows, he rejoiced throughout his life at the privilege of serving the Risen Jesus, the One whom he had encountered near Damascus.

His meeting with Jesus is the key to Paul’s life. No epileptic seizure at Damascus, no sudden dawning of truth upon him, no resolution to stop his hateful razing of the Church produced such a change. The change resulted from an encounter with Jesus, the Living One who was dead and is alive forever-more by the power of an Indestructible Life. When he met the Risen Lord, the self-confessed chief of sinners was transformed into a bond slave of Jesus Christ, a demonstration before men and angels of God’s infinite love and power.

By the Pharisees’s calculated opposition to Jesus, by the disciples’ unbelief, and by the persecutions of Saul, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is set in bold relief as a fact of history.

[HIS Magizine April, 1960]

[See also: http://www.harvardhouse.com/prophetictech/new/er.htm]

TWO: Biblical statements and possible implications for our times


*11. The Bang and the Glory

[GE 1:1] “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”


If any verse in the Bible is well known this has to be it.  I suppose that many people think this is the way the Bible talks.  Many people seem never to explore beyond the first two chapters of Genesis.  It’s what they are missing that prompts my ventures of textual explication here.


The verse is also one of the most disputed verses in the Bible.  Many of my good Christian friends are so occupied with the miraculous work of God as the creator as described here that they bridle at any discussion of the mechanisms of the creative act.  They surmise nothing more can be said about creation.  To them the miracle is somehow denied by discussions of the material processes that take place in nature, or might have taken place in the past.  Some of my good friends claim to distrust “science.”  At the same time they want medical care to reflect the best knowledge of the field; that the whole edifice of scientific thought rests on the same assumptions escapes them.


It seems to me that those who take this view misunderstand the nature of science, so here at the beginning it seems necessary for me to clarify what science is and is not.  Science is merely an attempt to understand the universe in its own terms.  True, it took generations of argumentation and dispute to reach agreement on how the natural world can be examined in this way, but as science now exists its categories and measurements are necessarily grounded in the natural world.

What we call science was at one time called “natural philosophy” to distinguish the rational inquiry of the empirical world from the more abstract “philosophy” that flourished after the discovery, or re-discovery, of Greek philosophical thought in twelfth and thirteenth century.  The focus of “natural philosophy” was partly driven by the remarkable flood of new information into Europe after the rise of world maritime trade and the “age of discovery” that began to flourish in the sixteenth century.  The focus shifted to understanding the material world being discovered in so many forms.  Francis Bacon [1561-1626] thought that in championing empirical enquiry he had made a contribution to natural philosophy.  Isaac Newton [1643-1727] called his famous book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.  Newton formulated not only the principles of how physical bodies relate to each other but also the mathematics of those relations, and so inspired a quest among others to “discover” more “laws” operative in the natural world.

Eventually the term that encompassed the assumptions of geological and astronomical thought was “uniformitarianism.” The Scottish geologist James Hutton [1726-1797] didn’t use the word but the concept was implied in his 1785 paper claiming that the earth’s long history could be inferred from processes going on in the present.  His argument was promoted by Sir Charles Lyell [1797-1875] and finally given its name by William Whewell in 1832.

And from such assumptions the twentieth century produced a marvel of scientific conception that bears on our verse.  The concept that all matter actually burst out from a single point at some time in the astronomical past – the instant just after “creation” – was formulated in 1927 by the Catholic priest and mathematician Georges Lemaître.   Lemaître developed his “hypothesis of the primeval atom” out of Albert Einstein’s concept of general relativity, making use of Alexander Friedmann’s general equations.  A mere two years later Edwin Hubble, peering into the heavens, discovered that the distances of galaxies were generally proportional to the red shift of light they emitted, suggesting that they were moving away from the earth — in fact faster the further away they were.  Galaxies seemed to be bursting out from a single point, suggesting that the universe was continually expanding, and in all directions.  The natural surmise was that at one time all matter must have been somehow compressed into a single point.  Fred Hoyle, who at the time was challenging the concept, in a 1949 radio broadcast gave us the elegantly graphic term “Big Bang” for this concept.  And in 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, to their own surprise, discovered cosmic microwave background radiation that seemed to provide incontrovertible evidence of the “Big Bang”.  Scientists now (2010), after applying various measurements, have agreed that the fateful moment, the explosive beginning of all beginnings, took place between 13.3 and 13.9 billion years ago.  Such a concept, simply inconceivable in the nineteenth century, has become standard scientific thought in the twentieth.

But this is not the focus of the Bible.  Here the preeminent concern is with God as the magnificent independent figure who stands outside of and beyond the universe he created.  The psalmist formulates the real orientation of the Bible:  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the earth shows his handiwork” [Ps. 19:1]. What the scientist sees as natural forms driven by powerful and ineluctable forces, the psalmist sees as “the glory of God” and “the handiwork of God.”  The science of the universe, a construction of formulations always subject to review and revision, is not contrary to the preoccupation of the Bible but complementary to it.  Science is another way of knowing.  Those of us with scientific interests are discovering something of how God does what he does, but there is no necessary compromise with the notion that God has projects unexaminable in uniformitarian terms of science.  Voltaire usefully proposed that a “philosophy of history” [the study of human beings and their affairs] is possible even if we cannot know what God is doing in the world; a science of the human condition can be pursued without reference to the Providence of God. Whatever God is doing in the world, it escapes our quest to develop rational understandings of human society and the human condition.

The focus of the Bible and of the book of Genesis, which we will be looking at later, is the God who created everything known and knowable.  He is its focus, its hero.  It indicates that he has plans and projects in the world among the human beings he created, and those are the preeminent topic in the Bible.  God has revealed himself, the Bible says, some of it, to human beings.  He is not only a creator — this many texts of the Bible collectively assume and imply and affirm — but he is also a personality whose opinions directly bear on the behavior and affairs of human beings on earth. Those things we can learn about by turning to the Bible.

So we begin with the text, “God created the heavens and the earth.”  Precisely how he did it, what the material mechanisms of that creative instant were — such issues will continue to vex scientists as long as rational thought exists.  In the mean time, along with the psalmist those of us who are believers allow ourselves to marvel at the “glory” of his creative work.  Look, for instance, at Adam Block’s photograph of the Horesehead Nebula.  Is that glorious or what?

And in response to what we learn of him we worship:  “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be glory for ever. Amen.  Rom 11: 33-36

[See also http://rcanfield.blogspot.com/ for September 6, 2010;  also http://www.harvardhouse.com/QR_science.htm]




*12. The Greatest Social Commentators of All Time: The Prophets

People who are unfamiliar with the Bible suppose that the Old Testament prophets, only prophesied.  It’s true; many of them did foretell events in significant ways.  But most of them were pre-eminently social critics, especially of the leadership of their societies.  And they were especially critical of the religious leaders of their times.

Many of them were rejected during their own times:  Jeremiah was of course the most notable of them to be persecuted: He was placed under house arrest, put in the stocks, dumped in a well. Without some loyal friends he would have died – and indeed, the last we know of him is that he was dragged away to Egypt against his will.  Indeed, what he had to say was regarded by officials as treason, and if some had had their way he would have been formally executed.

Other prophets as far as we can tell were, if not persecuted, then ignored—often only tolerated.  What they all shared was a definite sense that God was in charge of history; and they spoke in His name.

So what was it that made them so offensive?  It was what they had to say about the leaders of their times, especially as I say the religious figures, whose power was formidable in their society.  The prophets, despite their individual limitations in social leverage, exerted their impact by describing social situations and the behavior of their leaders in virulent, vivid, sometimes even grotesque terms.  Ezekiel’s vocabulary and imagery were so gross, so sexually explicit, in its allegorical description of Israel’s betrayal of God, that in later generations some Jews refused to read it aloud in the synagogues.  [The offending passage deserves a separate discussion; it is one of the most deeply moving passages in the Bible for those of us who, like the Israelites, have betrayed our God.]

Here I want merely to point out how vivid and pointed are the critical images that the prophets created about leaders and societies who were offending God.  Always – and this is what those who know nothing of the Bible are unprepared for – the corrections they call for, are critiques are for social reforms:  provisioning the poor, care for the “fatherless,” the widow, and the alien.  Here are some examples [with emphasis on some of those parts that are especially telling]:

Here is an example of Jeremiah’s vivid language; there is no ambiguity here!:

Jer 6: 13-15

From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. `Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?  No, they have no shame; they do not even know how to blush.

Jer 13:23

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?  Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.

In the passages below God is presented as unimpressed by formal rules, by ritual sacrifices:  what he wants, says Isaiah, is justice, support for the oppressed, defence of the fatherless, pleading the case for the widow:

Isaiah 1: 12-17

When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates.  They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.  When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you.  Even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.  Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean.  Take your evil deeds out of my sight!  Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!  Seek justice.  Encourage the oppressed.   Defend the cause of the fatherless.  Plead the case of the widow.

Here is the famous passage by Isaiah on what fasting should entail:

Isaiah 58: 1-10

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.  Raise your voice like a trumpet.  Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.  For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.  They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.

`Why have we fasted,’ they say, `and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. . . .

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?  Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?  Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.  If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

Here is Micah’s critique of his society:

Micah 2:1-4

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds!  At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.  They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them.  They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance.  Therefore, the LORD says: “I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves.  You will no longer walk proudly, for it will be a time of calamity.  In that day men will ridicule you; they will taunt you with this mournful song:  `We are utterly ruined; my people’s possession is divided up.  He takes it from me! He assigns our fields to traitors.’ ”

Malachi provides a critique of the religious elite of his time:

Malachi 2:5-9

[The Lord says to them:] “My covenant was with [Levi], a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him.  This called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.  For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction–because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty.

But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty.  “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”

Jeremiah has little good to say of the “shepherds” of his time.  Here is an example:

Jer 23: 1-4

Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the LORD. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.  I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the LORD.

Ezekial has an extended critique of the “shepherds” of his day.

Ezk 34: 2-16

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
” `Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
” `For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land.  I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.  I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.


*13. Allah as a Biblical Name for God

It is strange that a number of people seem to think the word “Allah” is the name of a pagan god. Some go so far as to claim that to refer to Allah is to refer to a demonic spirit.

Allah is the south -Semitic cognate of Elohim, the north Semitic term, which is used in the Bible. Elohim is of course a plural [-im], so the singular, Eloh, looks much more like the south Semitic version. Elohim always appears in the plural in the Bible, which means that the translator of the text has to decide whether the text refers to “gods” [as in Deut 34: 28 “You will serve gods [elohim] of wood and stone”] or to God [as in Lev 22:33, “who brought you out of Egypt to be your God [Elohim]. I am the LORD [Yahweh]].” In most contexts it is not that difficult.

There is a curious parallel in the south Semitic tradition: Allah always speaks in the plural in the Quran. It is, I suppose, a plural of authority or of respect, which may be the reason that the northern Semitic always appears in the plural. In the early chapters of Genesis Elohim also speaks in the plural. It appears that the plural form is an expression of respect for the “real” God whereas the plural may still be used for false gods. In a sense the English is not all that different; the “you” of English is a plural that replaced “thou” as people sought to express respect. I understand that that took place in reaction to the Quaker practice of speaking to individuals in the singular “thou”, even the King. Whatever the reason, English made the shift from singular to plural in the second person singular.

As for Allah in the Bible, it is the term used for “God” in the Arabic translation of the Bible. The Persian version, besides using the Persian term [khudaa], also in some places uses the word “Allah” for God.

The notion that words have some magical connection with evil misunderstands the nature of language. The English word “God” has a history that some people might consider unsavory: it was the Anglo-Saxon term used when the god Thor was worshipped through sacrifices of humans and horses.

Every language has a “heathen” history. That was the point throughout the OT when the “Elohim” of the Hebrews revealed to them his personal name “Yahweh” and sought to explain to them what he was really like and what pleased him, rather than the kinds of things that they supposed would please him. High success in that project is evidenced in many of our presuppositions about the nature of God.


*14. Relativism, Cultural and Ethical


The concept of cultural relativism, as some anthropologists understand it, entails some premises that are questionable. It is often confused with ethical relativism, a position that cannot be sustained. And it has entailed assumptions about the concept of culture that are now being challenged. Some recent works have emphasized the diversity of reasons for cultural practice and the continuous flux of social life. They thus avoid the “totalizing” notion of culture that is usually assumed in the notion of cultural relativism.
*15. On Cultural Relativism, Ethics, and the Concept of Culture

Cultural relativism is generally taken as axiomatic among anthropologists. It was a crucial notion in the formation of the discipline and I suspect it is taught in virtually every beginning textbook. But there are dilemmas entailed in the concept, which the discipline has been reluctant to examine. I only know of one book that has taken up the issue seriously (Hatch 1983). In this note I point out two issues that bear on the concept — ethical relativism and recent reformulations of the concept of culture — both of which indicate that cultural relativism cannot be taken as axiomatic.

Carl Wellman (1988) formulates the problem of ethical relativism. Cultural relativism, he admits, is an ethnographic fact, but ethical relativism, which is often presumed to be entailed in it, is not to be taken seriously. Ethical relativists, says Wellman, would desist from discussion and debate about moral and ethical issues if they practiced what they claim to believe. In fact, none of them do; virtually everyone expresses moral opinions, which implies that they in fact do hold some moral views above others.

Contrary to the supposition of some anthropologists, the ethical issues entailed in the contact of two cultures are not simply a matter of accepting any cultural practice. Napoleon Chagnon, for instance, has said that he was once asked to transport some Yanomamo men in his boat, ostensibly to trade but in fact to raid another village. For the anthropologist that raises the question whether it would be right to cooperate in such a project? Chagnon also has indicated that when he saw women depriving their daughters of food he intervened and provided food for the daughters (mentioned in Hatch (1983). But there are even more subtle dilemmas in a situation like Chagnon’s: He reports that one reason for Yanomamo fighting is that they believe the sorcery of other people causes the death of their children. In that case, would it not be ethical to disabuse them of this belief? (Many anthropologists would recoil from doing this.) Wellman clearly believes that he has formulated criteria by which to determine what is ethical in such situations. Even though he acknowledges that moral practices differ around the world he avoids approving any “custom” because it is practiced. Indeed, his book aims to establish the criteria by which ethical behavior in any society may be judged.

There are also analytical problems with a concept of culture that is presumed in the notion of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism was developed by Herskovitz and supported by other Boasians as part of their concern to distinguish racial explanations from cultural, and to insist that other cultures should be appreciated in their own terms. The point was to say that behavior was the result of socialization, not some biologically innate inclination. Each culture has its own distinctive configuration of customs, acquired through a long history, and its various features are organized (as Boas saw it) according to a dominant theme (Stocking 1982: 220-233). So it is only right to respect other people’s customs and cultures. Not to do so would be “ethnocentric”. The preeminent assumption was that each “culture” had its distinctive configuration, which should be understood in its own terms. Culture from this point of view was “total” in the sense that everyone in a social group presumably accepted “the culture” into which they were socialized. The concept presumed concensuality.

I think the post-modernists [*1], whatever else we might say about them, have done us a service by raising some problems with such a concept of culture (they are not the only ones, but I’m skipping to something recent; there are other grounds for objecting to Boasian cultural totalism, such as its inadequate conception of change). They have stressed that the configuration of practices we call “culture” are normally, presumably always, contested (Marcus and Clifford, 1986). People don’t necessarily accept “their customs” without debate. And of course it turns out that “the culture” is usually, if not always, in the throes of change (Marcus and Fischer 1986).[*2] Moreover, according to the post-modernist critique, what we write about our “objects” is a fabrication of sorts; we are creating our “peoples” and thus “their cultures” by the things we write [*3]. The terms we use for cultural practices indeed define how the reader should regard them: a famous anthropologist used the term “ritual rape” to describe what goes on among a people inBrazil. What could that mean? “Ritual” implies consensus; “rape” does not. By creating that term he has sanitized what must be a scarring experience for the women in this society.

Even though the postmodernist critique has been carried too far by some [*4], it has been useful in generating some creative discussion about what we mean by culture. Indeed, Abu Lughod (1991) has said we ought to abandon the notion of culture altogether and instead be more explicit about what we mean; in effect, we need to deconstruct the concept. That seems to me helpful: I was once shocked to learn that some political scientists want to talk about “Oklahomaculture” versus “Minnesotaculture,” etc. Anthropologists have sold the concept of culture to the world but what the world has internalized may not be what we really had in mind. Bailey (1991) has pointed out that people may cooperate in the use of certain conventions for reasons of their own — not because they really believe in them but because they seem ways to deal with situations: Peasants in India don’t in fact respect government officials much, but they play along with the officials’ pretense that they are superior because it avoids hassle. James Scott (1985) argues something similar about peasants in southeast Asia; they in fact resist the dominant culture by the means they have, which are not many.

Fredrik Barth (1993) carries the attempt to deconstruct culture the furthest that I know of, and I recommend that difficult book to any serious student of the issue. He is opposed to “totalizing” the concept of culture, and indeed argues extensively that in most places there probably is much variation: “…we know perfectly well that the phenomena we are depicting are neither logically coherent nor essentially contradictory; they could well have been different, probably are different in all those places we have not observed, and may now be different in those places we did observe” (1993:6). Indeed, the book is about a small sector ofBali, an island that other anthropologists have described in “totalizing” terms. He nevertheless shows that in that small space there is a huge amount of variation; he calls it a “civilization”. He insists that we cannot think about culture in general terms but must make a number of distinctions. We must distinguish “behavior” (merely what can be observed; also the term suggests that there may be material consequences that are not fully understood) from “action” (which includes the intentions of an actor and the interpretations of those who must make sense of actor’s behavior). And he suggests that we should expect to find multiple “streams of knowledge” in a society. Such streams of knowledge provide “keys” that people use when they act in social situations; the actor works out his intentions in terms of such keys and others work out their interpretations in terms of such keys. People, that is, are not programmed by culture; they use different strands of culture, “knowledge streams,” for reasons that seem to them useful. All this takes us, Barth argues, closer to the experience of the people we study. Barth as well as his wife, Wikan (1991), stress that we want to know people’s “concerns,” which, in the case of the North Balinese, include the fear of sorcery, etc. Culture, that is, is the name for a diverse range of things that must be distinguished if we are going to provide adequate analyses of the lives and experience of others. It cannot be regarded as “total”; moreover, the concept is desacralized. It is not the name for a body of customs practiced for generations, as usually they are in flux, and anyway they are being deployed for reasons that could be various, according to the intentions of the actors. Such a concept of culture leaves a term like “ethnocide” without any sense. Culture is merely the name for a congeries of contingent relations operative in a changing society.

This is the long way around to saying that the assumptions behind cultural relativism are suspect on multiple grounds: the ethical relativism entailed in the concept of cultural relativism can in fact never be practiced; and it turns out that we can’t in fact believe in a “totalized” culture after all.



*1. Here I refer to the scholars who have introduced into anthropology the issues that are conventionally called “post-modern” (some of the important ones are cited here). A critique of the broader post-modernist movement is Harvey(1990).

*2 Headland 1997, although not directly concerned with this issue, cites some of the relevant recent works, notably on “the golden age that never was” and “virgin forests”.

*3. Geertz (1973: 15) was the first to drive this home, but see also Clifford and Marcus (1986); also see Said (1978)on “Orientalism” and Starn (1991, 1994) on “Andeanism” as the constructed realities of scholars.

*4. The following include some critiques of the views I have called “post-modernist” in anthropology: Fox (1991); Bailey (1991). See also Note 1.




Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1991. “Writing Against Culture”. In Richard G. Fox (1991), pp. 144, 146, 152-3.

Barth, Fredrik. 1993. Balinese Worlds.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Bailey, Fredrick. 1991. The Prevalence of Deceit.  Ithaca: Cornell University.

Fox, Richard G., ed. 1991. Recapturing Anthropology.  Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic.

David Harvey. 1990. The Predicament of Post-Modernity. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell.

Hatch, Elvin. 1983. Culture and Morality : The Relativity of Values in Anthropology. New York : Columbia University Press.

Headland, Thomas N. 1997. “Revisionism in Ecological Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 38(4): 605-630.

Marcus, George E. and James Clifford, eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California.

Marcus, George E. and Michael Fischer. 1986. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences.   Chicago: University of Chicago.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Random House.

Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale UP.

Starn, Orin. 1991. “Missing the revolution: Anthropologists and the war in Peru.” Cultural Anthropology 6: 63-91.

Starn, Orin. 1994. “Rethinking the politics of anthropology: The case of the Andes.” Current Anthropology 35[1]: 13-38.

Stocking, George W. 1982 [1968]. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Wellman, Carl. 1988. Morals and Ethics. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.


Wikan, Unni. 1991. Managing Turbulent Hearts: A Balinese Formula for Living. Chicago: University of Chicago.




*16. My story: A personal account


We all live with myths that frame our experience and our decisions. Honesty is the best policy. Everyone needs to be free. Free enterprise makes the world better. Justice is good. Such assertions are informed by the narratives we tell ourselves. They help us understand how the world works and accordingly (when we agree on the myths) coordinate our activities. Humans live socially in the world through such notions. But the narratives various groups tell themselves about how the world works — “their truth” — differ. What some of us take for granted is regarded as nonsense (”mythical”) by others. My truth is someone else’s myth. Obviously the differences among us come out of our different experiences. Here I describe briefly certain experiences that have shaped my notions of transcendent values, truths taken for granted. These experiences have in particular ways shaped my perspective on life and in a sense my work. Whatever anyone else thinks of them they have profoundly shaped my perception of myself, my purpose, my understanding of the world around me.

When I was in the sixth or seventh grade I went forward in an evangelistic meeting. It was the kind of meeting many people associate with Billy Graham, although it was before his time. An evangelist came to town and rented the largest auditorium in Tulsa and held several weeks of meetings. My family went several times. One night after the sermon there was an invitation to come forward and be saved. I went forward with reluctance and trepidation. I understood little. I don’t remember anyone explaining anything to me, although I think someone did, and I prayed a prayer of my own. I said something like, “Thank you, God, for salvation, and for Jesus dying for me.” I was sincere but had little notion of what I was doing.

I don’t know, in retrospect, if it “took.” I don’t think I felt any different. The one result of our going to those meetings that did have a lasting affect, certainly, was that our family started going to another church. We visited several churches that had, I think, been recommended to my mother and we tried one of them, a Pentecostal Church, not far from our house. After a few weeks we tried something else, a church where the preacher was a Moody Bible Institute graduate who preached, he hoped, like D. L. Moody; it don’t remember it as fire and brimstone but others might say so. I learned in that church more exactly what the gospel was: that Jesus’s death atoned for my sin, and that he would some day return to take me to heaven. But it was mainly through a Young Life Club, the first established in Tulsa, a few years later that I came to see what Christianity was in practice. A Young Life leader came up to Tulsa weekly from Dallas (a long drive in those days) to hold club meetings for high school kids on Thursday and Friday evenings, one for students at Will Rogers High School and the other at Webster High. But besides going to the meetings I came to know the leader as a friend of our family. His behavior, manners, commitment, and character rubbed off on me, at least in the sense that he became a model for me of what an upright life should look like. Of course I wouldn’t have said this at the time; Ed was just there as a model, an example at a time when I was trying to understand who I was.

During the summer of my junior year in high school I did something I was profoundly ashamed of. There is no need to elaborate; the point is, I was ashamed beyond description. I felt I had betrayed all that I wanted to be. I knew what sin was — I saw it in myself — but this act exceeded anything I thought myself capable of. I had been mouthing the words of the gospel that Christ had died for sinners like us, but I had never seen myself as much of a sinner. By that act I feared I had placed myself outside the range of God’s mercy. I had blown away a chance to know him, I thought, and I was overwhelmed with remorse. On the long drive back in Ed’s car from a Young Life camp late at night I begged God to take me back. I besought him in desperation. Even as I cried for mercy I realized what I believed: Jesus died for what I had done. He wanted to forgive me. He wanted to take me back. The impact of that realization was a private experience I have to draw a curtain over; it was an intimate moment. I never got over it.

I came away with a new view of myself and the world. This was late summer. I would sit on the porch long hours late into the night watching the stars, marveling at their beauty, drinking in the sense that the maker of such a universe was the source of a love that now filled me up. Everything spoke of God’s love. I entered my senior year of high school with a peace and an inner joy that I had never known before, and I felt others saw it in me. For the first time I felt free to relate to people with an acceptance and love that I had never had before. And for the first time I felt people drawn to me in a new way. It was a beautiful senior year — at least the first part of it.

About half way into the school year something happened to me physically that I did not understand, and I still don’t understand. I now wonder if the cause was an incident when I was horsing around (no doubt showing off for the girls) and did something foolish that caused pain, a sudden flash of pain. It crossed my mind that maybe I should see a doctor, but I soon forgot it. Was that the cause of the distress that came at about that time? I don’t know. Whatever the cause, people began to turn away from me as if my breath was offensive. For a time at least something may have been materially wrong with me; I will never know. The biggest problem to me was the sense that my breath was unpleasant and offensive to others — especially girls (!). I tried every kind of remedy without success. I became depressed. I began to hold myself aloof. No one, my family or anyone else, had any idea of my sense of defeat and isolation. The fear of meeting someone, especially a young woman, in close quarters, haunted me, clung to me, pervading every move. I would sweat and hold my breath. For years I could tell no one about the burden that dogged me through those years. I spent long hours in the little tool room in the back of our garage, sometimes practicing my trombone, other times reflecting on where a noose might be anchored in the ceiling, and how long it would take for my family to find my body.

I went to college a troubled person, although I’m not sure how much anyone else noticed. I did many of the things that college kids do, although I was still living at home. But the struggle went on and it affected my understanding of myself. I had doubts about Christianity. Did anything really happen that summer when I thought I was alone with God? Where was God? Did God exist? Why was I going through this? Was this a creation of my own mind?

In the mean time I had wonderful friends. They were an encouragement although I gave them few clues of what I was struggling with. I’m sure that some of them prayed for me. I was too shy to breathe to anyone, even to my best friends, my sense of embarrassment about my breath. Most helpful to me, nevertheless, was their faithful friendship. That they did not give up on me was a profound source of encouragement. From them I learned to read the Bible on my own. I had of course learned the proof texts; I had read a bit of the Bible — all the right verses — and thought I knew what it said, and by now I had heard plenty of sermons that claimed to be biblically based. But as it turned out, there was much yet for me to learn from the Bible. I came to think that perhaps the way to get answers to my questions was to turn to the Bible in a more deliberate way. I began to read the Bible with a view to trying to understand it on my own. It was a struggle at first. I plodded. I began to discover verses that seemed right for me and included them in the verses I memorized. After a while I was cherishing my time alone with the Bible. I had little interest in my college courses and barely passed them; I was a “C” student through college. The real education I got while in college came from my own reading and pondering of the Bible. As I read in the Bible I wrote comments, questions and objections in the margins; I noted connections between verses that seemed to be saying related things. I was by that time involved with an organization that encouraged memorization of the Bible [Navigators] and I began to memorize with a vengeance. The verses I cherished were the ones I found myself. Sometimes as I read a verse it would seem to jump out at me, as if it were tooled for me. Altogether I memorized more than 800 verses, and reviewed them regularly, even as I added a few new ones every week.

By the time I graduated from college I had a different attitude toward myself and my life. I don’t know if my physical condition was any different from when I entered, but I was less preoccupied with myself and more certain of what the Bible said to me. I had a very specific knowledge of the Bible, and I had become a convinced Christian in a precise sense. Many things were ahead of me when I graduated that I could never have envisioned. There would be new challenges, new failures, exciting experiences, still more disappointments, and more failures. But most of the time I kept on reading the Bible. I learned (and would have to learn again later in life) that the Bible was a treasure trove of promises for foolish, self-centered, needy individuals like me. Indeed, as I have continued to read through the Bible — by now over twenty times, each time with a pencil — I have changed my mind about a few issues. Some opinions changed as I came to understand my own discipline, anthropology, for it led me to ask new questions and eventually to see in the Bible many things my Christian friends seem blind to. My views seem no longer compatible with the evangelical community.

The consequence for my current understanding of myself and of my professional world is a viewpoint that bears the marks of my distinctive search for meaning and purpose. The Bible is, at least in ways that are distinctive for me, a kind of fundamental influence on my understanding of the world, of myself, of life, and the nature of reality. The mythical frame of reference that I take for granted in life has been shaped by my attempt to understand, even internalize, what God is like and what His purposes are as I have come to know them in the Bible. Because I am both an anthropologist and a Christian — discourses that are often taken to be incompatible — it is hard for me to relate to metaphysical assertions made by my friends and colleagues in both communities, those in my discipline and those within the church. This is why I want to present a collection of essays that attempt to explain my perspective on metaphysical issues, the sort of perspective one cannot prove and can only assert, for what it’s worth. I don’t intend it to be particularly distinctive; indeed, I believe my views are concordant with the main teachings of “the Church”, in its various expressions, inflected slightly perhaps by my particular professional background as an anthropologist.


*17.  Exploratory Bible Reading

I have been in several churches that have had “through the bible” reading programs, always with a view to finishing in a year.  The idea is to encourage people to read through the whole Bible.  There is a schedule, and everyone is supposed to stay on pace.  The minister and the other leaders of the church make a show of their participation.

But by the end of the year, hardly anyone has done it. Indeed, if anyone has done it, get through the whole Bible in a year, often the Church makes a big deal of it and gives them a prize.

The reality for most of us is that, however much we would like to read through the Bible in a year, it’s more than we can actually do.  Especially do profitably.

Read through the Bible?  Yes, but not at a frantic gallop.

Why not make the task — reading, no, re-reading through the whole Bible — a lifetime commitment?  A commitment to repeatedly look at the whole the text at a reasonable pace, in hopes of internalizing the great themes and messages of the Bible.

Our paces can be different, and it can vary over time, depending on how much time we can give to it.  In about 20 minutes a day it takes me about four or five years to get through the whole of the Bible, reflecting on  what it has to say, always with a pencil.  This is a big book and challenging.

And anyway it is full of stuff no one ever talks about, much of it immensely rewarding.  Here is a verse that I have never heard anyone preach about that bears on my point: The writer has just quoted a verse from the Old Testament, and he adds: “Whatever was written down in former times [i.e., the Old Testament] was written for our instruction, that through patience and through the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.”  

The Bible was written that we might have hope.  It was given for us to read with discernment, and in the process to acquire hope.

Why not commit ourselves to exploring through the Bible, a few minutes a day, every day?  When we come to the end of a chapter or a book we can note the date, to keep track of what we have done. Whatever other Bible reading we do, it is still possible to spend a few minutes a day exploring through the whole text.

For me, it has become a daily voyage of discovery.


*18.  Seeking Answers to Prayer

Here is a lesson I think I learned about living by faith. An issue arose in my life that I was very concerned about. It had to do with people close to me and I was deeply worried. It was a problem that I could see happening almost every day and I had absolutely no control over it. I decided to pray about it. I got up every morning to pray and spent most of the prayer time appealing to God to change this situation. Every day for many days.

Nothing happened. No change.

After some time, after I had faithfully begged Him to hear my prayer for many days, I finally came to the realization that of course God knew about the problem. Perhaps there was something else to do. I decided to show my willingness to do whatever He required by listening to Him rather than trying to make Him listen to me. I decided to spend the time reading the scriptures, to see what perhaps He wanted me to know. On the very first day that I spent that quiet time reading the scripture, something did happen: the issue that concerned me was for that day resolved. On the next day I again got up early to “listen” to his word; again the problem was for that day resolved.

Things began to change. I decided there must be something to listening to His word, that it is useful to listen to Him rather than beg for Him to fix a problem for me. He already knows what my concerns are before I utter them. Truth is, most of us [including me] are not much interested in listening to Him.

This was the context of my deciding to be more careful to read –”listen to” — the scriptures, to try to “hear” what God wanted me to know. “These are written”, says Paul, “that through patience and the encouragement of the scriptures you might have hope.” [Rom 15: 4]. Encouragement and hope: That is what the scriptures are for. I took this experience as a lesson and I have continued to read the scriptures daily, at least most of the time. I have now read through the scriptures many times; at one time I counted 20 times I had read through the whole Bible, not counting the several times I had read through the New Testament. By now I don’t know what the count is.

That experience persuaded me that God was more interested in getting my attention than He was in hearing me beg for some spectacular work to be done to fix my world.

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