Archive for May, 2011

Of Cabbages and Kings: The Psalms in Our Worship 32

by   |  05.31.11  |  Behavior, Bible, Prayer, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

It’s interesting how things converge in your brain.  Impressions, ideas, and reflections on both stream through seeking to stick together before something else roots them out.   Yesterday, I spent time working on a survey instrument for David Miller of Princeton University, who is a leader of the “faith at work” movement, an attempt to help men and women have more integrated lives.  See his website at http://www.princeton.edu/faithandwork.

Then comes today’s self-appointed assignment, to reflect on Psalm 40,  a thanksgiving hymn praising God for an integrated life.  What have these two assignments in common?  A lot, as it turns out.

The psalm has two basic parts: verses 1-11 (Hebrew 2-12) are a straightforward hymn of thanksgiving expressing trust and hope in God, and verses 12-17 (Hebrew 13-18) step backward to the time before God’s salvation and thus offer a retrospective petition, a flashback so to speak.  Yet the two parts connect closely to each other, because salvation is never far away from the one seeking it from God, and the memory of trouble is never far away even from the most secure of us.  Life, after all, hits us in this great stream of impressions, ideas, and reflections on both.

How, according to this psalm, does one praise God rightly?  One way to answer the question is to track the verbs used for the psalmist and for God.  The psalmist trusts, stands in awe, and invites others to do the same.  God, meanwhile, turns to the pray-er, listens, lifts out of the clay pit, sets feet on firm ground, and puts a new song (the psalm itself!) in one’s mouth.  The active God makes it possible for the formerly passive, overborne human to become active again and to resume a communal role.

Another way to track the pursuit of integration is to follow the structure of the psalm, which seems loose at first, but proves to be comprehensive in scope.  The thanksgiving turns in verse 4 (Hebrew 5) to benediction: “blessed is anybody whose refuge/place of trust is Yhwh.”  It then moves back to direct address to God, praising the Almighty for doing miracles (nifla’ot are often associated with the events of the exodus, though the concept is wider — the term means less suspension of the laws of nature, than simply actions that reorder the human world so that the righteous prosper as they should).  The psalmist then considers, and rejects or at least relativizes, an alternative form of praise, namely, sacrifice.  Yhwh does not need sacrifice.  Words are enough when they bear fruit in life.  Words and deeds, divine and human, all fit together somehow.

Among the most interesting lines are those in verses 7-8 (Hebrew 8-9): “Then I said, ‘Indeed I have come.  In the book it is written about me to do what pleases you, O God.  This is what I delight in.  So your law is in my inner being’.”  The lining out of the verses is a bit unclear, or rather, debatable, here, but you get the drift.  Many commentators associate the scroll in which the psalmist reads with the one written for the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, and thus argue that the psalm as a whole is a royal psalm.  This thesis is possible, though far from certain.  It seems also possible to think of the psalm as fairly late and thus as a specimen of a type of piety that emphasized the importance of the Law of Moses.  There is nothing obviously kingly about the psalmist (in contrast to the case with a number of other psalms), though we cannot rule out the possibility that we are supposed to imagine here a king delivered from national trials.

However you slice it, the ideal narrator of the psalm is someone who has experienced tragedy and deliverance and is now grateful for it.  He (or she) has found an integrated life rather than one divided up into little pockets in which faith has no bearing on anything else or vice versa.

In times of stress such as ours, we need this psalm.  Whatever my objective experience, it is easy to find life’s problems, to highlight disappointments, and to underscore tragedies.    But this little poem describes someone who found another way by the simple expedient of trusting God and seeking guidance from Torah.  What a concept!  It is this extraordinary willingness to make a commitment that marks the person of faith off from the rest of the human race.  Without such trust, we have no hope.  With it, many things are possible.

Guests and Hosts, Strangers and Aliens: The Psalms in Our Worship 31

by   |  05.20.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Psalm 39 continues the theme of repentance begun in Psalm 38 by reporting the remorseful sinner’s internal thoughts: “I said [to myself], let me keep my ways from sinning by means of my tongue; let me keep my mouth from violence [emending the Hebrew from m-ch-s-m to m-ch-m-s, a minor change] while the wicked are before me.”  The penitent person seeks to avoid social solidarity with cruel, sadistic, thoughtless people, preferring social alienation to such company.  The psalm ends on a closely related theme by asking God to “Hear my prayer, O Yhwh, listen to my cry.  Do not be silent about my tears.  For I am an alien with you, a sojourner like my ancestors.”  Why this self-portrayal as an outsider who needs divine hospitality?  Why appeal, as the psalmist does, to the age-old convention that those who wander through the land must receive support from those who live there, and most of all from the God who does?  Isn’t it an odd way to describe the condition that the sinner faces when, cognizant of wrongdoing, he or she seeks a remedy?

The answer, of course, is that this sense of alienation is precisely what we feel in such a circumstance.  Where do we turn?  How do we get over the humiliation that we must go through?  Here we have a profound insight from the Psalter, according to which the only place to turn is to the God who welcomes aliens, the God who understands.

I recently came across a story by Juergen Moltmann in his 2008 autobiography, A Broad Place (Fortress Press).  There he talks about his experiences as a nineteen- and twenty-year old prisoner of war at the end of World War II, during which he had been drafted into the Wehrmacht while still a teenager.  Sometime at the camp, a chaplain came and brought the men Bibles.  In the course of reading the Bible he encountered the gospel of Mark and near its end the plaintive cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Moltmann writes about that discovery, “I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely; who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now.  I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew that he understood me” (p. 30).  He understood me.

The singer of Psalm 39 also assumes that God understood him or her and was ready to heal.  The psalmist assumes that a request for information about the length of his or her life (or as the medieval commentator Rashi thinks, the length of suffering to be endured as punishment) is reasonable and will find an answer.  Appealing to the temporary nature of human existence and thus the inappropriateness of prolonged divine discipline (verses 5, 11 — they form an envelope around the central idea, verses 7-10), the psalm asks for the removal of sin through suffering, seeking to find meaning in the dislocation caused by sin.  (The psalm does not assume that all suffering comes as punishment for sin, so we can’t draw too many conclusions here!)  The restoration of health and happiness will allow for a meaningful life before God, not a return to sin, because the psalmist has understood reality better and has become a better person.  The hospitable God who receives sinners can count on this psalmist to live the gracious life he or she had earlier forsaken.

There is much else to say about repentance, but it is always useful to remember the nature of the One with whom we repent.  The God of Israel is neither a cruel tyrant eager to find fault, nor a cavalier ruler ignoring the behavior of now abandoned subjects.  Rather, this is a God who cares deeply about humankind and seeks its betterment.  Repentance is part of that process of betterment.  Hence this psalm and others like it.

Join me next week at the Sermon Seminar of the Austin Graduate School of Theology.  The congenial, thoughtful group there is always worth being with!

“A Protestant Learns to Love the Church Fathers”

by   |  05.17.11  |  Uncategorized

The following was written by one of our graduate theology students, Ben Griffith, and originally appeared online in the Huffington Post Religion section on May 10, 2011.

“A Protestant Learns to Love the Church Fathers”

by Ben Griffith

Like beer and black coffee, the Church Fathers are an acquired taste.

Although young and still a graduate student, I am no newcomer to the Christian faith. But somehow, in the process of church, youth camps, undergrad Bible courses and extensive reading of Scripture, the Church Fathers — the spiritual exemplars of the Christian tradition — never made it into the conversation.

To me, everyone from the Christian tradition was merely another interpreter of Scripture. Why would I waste my time reading someone else’s opinion when I could just read the Bible for myself? What good would it do to read from the Christian tradition when everything I need can be found in Scripture? Sola Scriptura! — and the tradition can be left to my non-Protestant friends.

But things began to change when I learned that being Christian is about conforming to a tradition. It is about becoming part of an ongoing movement that has hung around and thrived for two millennia. It’s not totally unlike American History requirements in school. The historical question is far greater than learning about the past, or even learning about how to navigate the future. It is about identity. One could hardly be called an American in the thick sense of that term without even a cursory knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and our other political heroes. So it seems equally absurd to me for a person to think that being Christian can be accomplished without knowing what being Christian has meant through our shared history. However, somewhere in the Protestant move the central role of Scripture for the Christian identity became so overwhelmingly bright that the humble lamps of the Christian fathers were misplaced and then subsequently forgotten.

One of the greatest disservices of contemporary theology is its neglect of the Christian Fathers and their contribution to our religion. But even more than that, an equally appalling tragedy is the neglect of the great exemplars of Christian faith in non-liturgical traditions.

Reading the Fathers is difficult in its own right, and learning how to constructively appropriate them into contemporary contexts is an even greater challenge. But it is insane to call ourselves Christian when we ignore what being Christian has meant since its inception. Before reading another book about leadership or church structure, maybe Christians (including me) could do well to reach for Augustine or Maximus the Confessor.

Why God Loves the Penitent: The Psalms in our Worship 30

by   |  05.11.11  |  Bible, Identity, Theology

Repentance — such an old-fashioned, churchy word, so reminiscent of unctuous preaching and Elmer Gantry hucksters.  Or so some of us think.  Yet, even if the word has fallen on hard times, the idea of change, of renouncing bad habits and poor commitments, of rethinking what we love still makes sense to most of us, and rightly so.  Few people outside the confines of the world’s privileged elites of power, wealth, and celebrity are so convinced of their own perfection as not to acknowledge the need for repentance now and then.

Psalm 38, one of the Psalter’s penitential psalms, lays out both the need for repentance and the steps such an action requires.  As in most laments, the poem expresses the suffering of the poet (and all subsequent singers of the song) in terms of bodily pain and decay (verses 1-14 sound like a hypochondriac’s dream world, though in this case, the description is true), and in terms of social isolation (verse 11’s [12 in Hebrew] “those loving me and my neighbors stand before/apart from my affliction; those formerly near me stand way back”).

Unlike most lamenters, however, the psalmist takes responsibility for sin, as in verse 18’s “for I recount my inquity and have remorse for my sin.”  At the same time, this psalmist does not cower before a distant God who remorselessly punishes sin.  Rather, the psalmist associates God with his or her suffering, not only by pointing out to God that the arrows of the Almighty have already brought enough pain to get the sinner’s attention, but also by commenting on the performance of the psalm itself, describing it as a way of reaching out to God.  So verse 9 [Hebrew 10] says, “O Lord, before you is all my desire, and my sighing is not obscured from you.”  The psalmist has done all he or she can do and now awaits salvation.

Hence the poem’s conclusion: “Do not abandon me, O Yhwh my God.  Do not be far away from me.  Hurry to my rescue, O my saving lord.”  For the psalmist, the most devastating consequence of sin is its isolation from God, its capacity to shatter hope in a meaningful and orderly world, and thus its capacity for utterly crushing the soul of the sinner.  Other texts, of course, talk about other consequences.  But here the radical individualism of repentance comes to the fore.  I, and not someone else, am a sinner.  I must change.  I must find my way back to a merciful God.  Individuality is both a blessing and a curse.  The naked “I” is most manifest as a consequence of sin; the aloneness of the individual is the result of our capacity for evil, not the highest good.  And yet I cannot shift responsibility from myself to another, for in doing so I erase myself and lose all opportunity to be part of a relationship with others.

But then again, repentance in this text and in general rests on a key assumption about the nature of the human being and thus of God.  That assumption is that God desires human beings to change, grow, mature, and live according to justice.  Repentance is not a futile begging for mercy, nor is it a way of appeasing an otherwise stubbornly hard-nosed God.  Repentance is not a way of crushing human independence, as the Romantics of the modern and postmodern period often understand it (see, for example, Shelley’s poem “Prometheus Unbound,” and in some ways Aeschylus’s ancient original, “Prometheus Bound”).  Repentance is a way of keeping us from crushing ourselves.  It is an act of turning back to the course of goodness and life, for our own sakes.  Repentance matches our deepest desires with our outward actions.  And as such, it is a gift of mercy we give ourselves.

This week, there are some things I need to repent of.  Maybe it’s the same for you.  And next week, there will be more.  Let us have the courage to receive forgiveness and healing through the honest discipline of repentance.

Do We Ever Really Move? A Book Review

by   |  05.03.11  |  Christianity, Church History, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Review of Susan Campbell, Dating Jesus (Boston: Beacon, 2009).  By Mark Hamilton at the 2010 Christian Scholars Conference, Lipscomb University

On picking up this book, I frankly expected to hate it.  What could be more clichéd than a story of a self-conscious young person growing up in a suffocating, oppressive conservative religious group and then coming of age (read: becoming secular and successful back east)?  Such memoirs have become a sort of rite of passage, a passport to the guild of the literati, and whatever artistic merit or intellectual bite they may once have had has long since sunk into the swamp of the smugness and overweening ignorance of what passes for our culture’s post-Christian elites.  Had my fears come true, my own pitiable role as reviewer would then be either to defend practices and beliefs I have worked my adult life to correct or at least temper, or I would have had to join in the flagellation of the unwashed – or, in this case, fully immersed but still unenlightened – an even more contemptible form of life to which the odious word quisling might well apply.

Fortunately for me, and for you, Susan Campbell’s book is not exactly what I expected.  It is better than that.  She speaks honestly of the struggles of her childhood growing up in churches of Christ (small c, big c) in Missouri, her incipient feminism that could not see why a loving God would silence half the human race in God’s own house, her struggles with family and with the vagaries of what she calls, with a refreshing refusal to be apologetic, hillbilly culture.  Though sometimes meandering and repetitive, this memoir of a life tells well the story of a woman who loves Jesus but is mighty uncomfortable with some of his followers.

Any reviewer must ask why he or she should review another person’s work.  I can only assume that my assignment does not derive solely from my having been raised on the other side of the Boston Mountains as Ms. Campbell or having been, like her, a Bible bowl champion at Green Valley Bible Camp (where, by the way, I was baptized in June, 1977 at the age of 12), or my also having been bitten by a German shepherd while door knocking (I was door knocking, not the German shepherd).  I can only assume that my role is to represent those who experienced many of the intramural debates and mad restrictions she describes but stayed around anyway.  It’s not just that fundamentalism broke off inside of me, as she says her brother put it to her about them both, but that I have become something other than a fundamentalist but found a home here anyhow.  At least I hope that’s why I’m here.

Let me explore that role for awhile, then.  Campbell’s work raises for me a number of questions.  The first and most obvious is, why do some people stay and others leave? It is tempting to reduce the answer to the differences in our genders and the roles gender plays in Churches of Christ.  It would never have occurred to me, for example, to entitle any memoir of my life so far in this movement with the overtly, if self-mockingly, erotic way for which Ms. Campbell opts.  Here, however, Campbell is in good company with Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, whom she mentions, and Teresa of Avila and a host of others she doesn’t.  Also, to be honest, I remember my distinct discomfort as a teenage boy in singing the hymn “Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on his gentle breast,” and feeling more than a little threatened – can you unman a boy? – by that.  Eros’s strange affair with logos, and especially the Logos, plays in more than one way.

Yet life is never simple, and gender has never been as simple as an outsider would imagine by reading Campbell’s book.  It’s not just that we boys who were clumsy or bookish were at least as uncomfortable at the sports-oriented world of Green Valley as Campbell could ever have been.  It’s also that strong women did the most vital work of our congregation.  Many of them felt that the work of waiting the Lord’s table and all the rest was somewhat beneath their dignity.  Good enough for the men, important, but not all that crucial.  And I have often heard some of those women dissecting sermons and pointing out the mistakes the preacher made, not unkindly, but as a sort of warning to us men, especially us aspiring preacher boys, to get it right.  There was, and is, even in the most restrictive and closed environments in our churches, a sort of leaven at work, a clandestine theological discourse that is often richer than the public one and often at cross-purposes to it.  No, things are never quite as clear-cut as they seem.

Now it is also clear that my call to be a minister, which came even before my baptism, and which I would learn only much later to identify as a call, entailed a great deal of affirmation from both men and women and opportunities.  I preached my first sermon at 13 and was a boy preacher in Crawford County throughout high school.  I engaged in a written debate with a Nigerian Jehovah’s Witness when I was 15 or 16, an experience that Campbell had in her own way floating in a lake in the Ozarks.  There were rewards for such precocity.  But there were also distinct and painful punishments when I came home after a semester or two of college full of second thoughts and questions and ideas.  So the expectations do cut both ways.  With opportunity comes responsibility, not always in an easy to understand way.

At the same time, I think that staying and going are about more than just gender, just as they are about more than individual choices or sheer random variation.  They concern the structures of resources and responsibilities. And this seems to me to be the nub of the problem.  How can a religious movement that we both love, one of us enough to leave and another of us enough to stay, reform itself?  What resources lie within it for such a thing?  As someone who is experiencing that reform – it is not wishful thinking – let me talk about what I see.

Two words perhaps capture this: longing and loving.  Take the longing first.  At the risk of sounding like an exegete of bad country music, let me ask what this movement longs for.  Campbell herself says it well when she describes Churches of Christ as “frontier revivalism frozen in amber” but adds

“If that sounds grim, it isn’t.  If it sounds soulless, it isn’t that, either.  The traditions plant in the believer – even someone who walks away from the church – a deep and soulful need (38).”

What is this longing?  What makes people do the crazy things they do?  Why have so many parts of our little group, or not so little, actually fought over issues that seemed to most Christians idiosyncratic at best?

Part of the answer must lie in the sheer cussedness and stubbornness of Southerners, especially those from the working classes that mostly fed our congregations until the past generation or two.  Stubbornness was an adaptive skill, a way of defending oneself against the powerful.  But surely beneath that obstinacy at least sometimes lies a commendable willingness to defy the structures of power, a healthy conviction that, if God is real, human pretensions to mastery are not.  This is why my grandmother, who finished only the eighth grade but raised four kids to go to college and served as an elder’s wife and made a huge garden besides, could sing with such enthusiasm, “I’m satisfied with just a cottage below… I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltops.”  No irony there, no snideness, but deep longing.

Behind the overly literal readings of the Bible, the inflexible and often self-defeating adherence to trivial or even specious ideas, and the blindness to social corruption lies a deep longing to do the will of God.  You don’t need to date Jesus when you’re part of his bride. Or to put things a little more formally, at our best, Churches of Christ long for what another Campbell, Thomas this time, proposed as the basic attitude of the uniting church he sought to build:

[A]ll that are enabled, thro’ grace, to make such a profession, and to manifest the reality of it in their tempers and conduct, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as brethren, children of the same family and father, temples of the same spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love, bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance.  Whom God hath thus joined together, no man should dare to put asunder.  D & A, Proposition 9

This vision seems compelling enough for our contemporaries, and if we can recapture it, we can avoid giving our sons and daughters the same sorts of tortured theologies and self-understandings that Campbell describes.  We can do so because longing implies loving.

What is it we love?  The surprise for me in Dating Jesus’ version of Churches of Christ was the relatively little attention Campbell played to singing, except when mentioning the atavistic, tribal, almost primitive attachment we sometimes have toward a cappella music.  For me, this was and is one of the most life-giving aspects of our tradition.  More than just a curiosity, like the Amish’s refusal to wear buttons, it is a practice through which we have done our best theology.  It has been ecumenical in that we have sung the hymns of those with whom we would otherwise have had strong disagreements.  It has given us powerful ways to speak of our love for God and people.  It has inspired our faithful actions and challenged us in our self-indulgence.  Though I fear for its survival, given its current captivity to the schmaltzy side of the Christian liturgotainment industry, it has been and to some extent still is our language of love.  “There is a name I love to hear…”  “there is a habitation built by the living God.”  Perhaps the recapturing of that love will serve us in good stead.

Finally, I am grateful for Dating Jesus because, even if she is too polite to say so, Ms. Campbell calls on the church, and on Churches of Christ in particular, to do a better job of remembering its first love and find language and practices that articulate it for everyone, including baseball-playing tomboys from Missouri.  She has helped us do that, and for that we must be grateful.

Video: ACU’s Graduate Chapel (4.27.11)

by   |  05.03.11  |  Uncategorized

Dr. Jack Reese (Dean of the College of Biblical Studies, Professor of Preaching) reflects on the Resurrection.

Podcast: Life After Easter

by   |  05.02.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Life After Easter

Podcast: How Does the Old Testament Relate to Christian Ministry?

by   |  05.02.11  |  Uncategorized

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

How Does The Old Testament Relate to Christian Ministry?