Where is God in the story of Jesus’s death? A response to Tony Jones’s Did God Kill Jesus?

Ted Grimsrud—August 22, 2016

A review of: Tony Jones. Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015. viii + 296pp.

Popular emergent church blogger, writer, and teacher Tony Jones begins this lively exercise in popular theology with a story of a typical summer camp revivalist preacher trying to scare 11- and 12-year olds into a Christian conversion. He points out with horror the spiritual abusiveness of such manipulation. He uses this story to set up his agenda for the book—how can we redeem, as it were, the hurtful story of salvation that summer camp preacher used on the kids?

Jones argues that the way to redeem the Christian notion of salvation is to insist on always putting love at the center. Notions of salvation that are not ultimately about God’s love do not pass the “smell test” and need to be discarded—or at least reshaped.

Looking at the traditional atonement models

Although Jones is critical of received salvation theology and is committed to finding new ways to articulate how Christians should understand salvation that make love central, he still accepts the basic framing of the issues that have characterized evangelical Christianity for the past one hundred years. He starts with a discussion of sacrifice as the central biblical motif and sees Paul’s theology as the core of the biblical teaching.

And, he accepts the approach to atonement theology that has become standard, to consider the various “atonement models.” So he begins with by devoting a section to the “payment model” (i.e., Anselm’s satisfaction model). He then takes up the “victory model” (a.k.a., “Christus Victor,” the approach Gustaf Aulen attributed to the early fathers) and the “magnet model” (i.e., Abelard’s “moral influence” model). These three have stood for several generations as the core “atonement models.” Like many other writers have recently done, Jones seeks to draw on what he sees to be strengths in each model, rather than focusing on one as superior to the others. Continue reading

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The missing peace in the Democratic Party convention

Ted Grimsrud—August 1, 2016

It seems that the recently concluded Democratic Party convention (DNC) was a success. Clearly, the convention was orchestrated to show a direct contrast with the Republican Party convention the previous week—highlighting diversity, care for the poor, positive hope for the nation, and the like. And unity. The threat of major disruption from supporters of Bernie Sanders proved to be minimal—beyond some random “no more war” chants that were ignored by the people in charge. Sanders helped with his explicit support for Clinton.

Sanders’s speech was a model in how he affirmed Clinton’s candidacy going forward while he also reemphasized the core themes of his campaign. He received a kind of affirming echo from Clinton in her speech, as she lifted up many Sandersian points. Surely, the success of his insurgency campaign pulled her in his direction—and one can fantasize that Sanders and many others will help keep her to her word on many of the issues: vs. harmful free trade agreements, for economic justice, for greater access to higher education, for an increased minimum wage, for criminal justice reform, challenging the big banks, et al.

However, there was something crucial missing from Sanders’s speech—and he perhaps lost the one opportunity possible at the convention to challenge the worst of Clinton’s politics. Sanders said nothing about opposition to war and militarism. And, so, the empire continues to hurtle toward brokenness—and to take all of us with it. There are many angles one could take in decrying this lack of opposition—I write as a Christian theologian. Though it was indeed remarkable how visible explicit Christian faith was at the DNC, I take little comfort in a phenomenon I normally might have welcomed. This Christian presence runs the danger of being just another baptism of empire, even if “kinder and gentler” (ironic allusion to George H.W. Bush intended) than previous baptisms, if it won’t lead to an explicit commitment to “no more war.” Continue reading

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Refuting the evangelical rejection of same-sex relationsips: A response to James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality

Ted Grimsrud—July 5, 2016

Evangelical Christians in North America are evolving—gradually—to become more welcoming of LGBTQ Christians. One indication of this movement is the growth in the number of books that come from a relatively conservative theological perspective arguing on biblical grounds for such welcome. One of the best of these books is Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013) by James V. Brownson.

Brownson is a long-time New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. The RCA resembles Mennonite Church USA in the wide theological diversity among its congregations. As a whole, it appears to fit into an interesting space between the evangelical world and the “mainstream” Protestant world—active in ecumenical relationships on both sides.

However, as far as I know, Brownson represents a minority perspective in the RCA with his argument for the affirmation of same-sex marriage. His views as expressed in this book surely will evoke strong antipathy from many corners of the RCA world.

A parent’s response

One way to situate this book is to see it as a father’s response to his son coming out at gay. This event, which Brownson calls a “dramatic shock to my life,” challenged him “to re-imagine how Scripture speaks about homosexuality” (p.1). Most fathers in this situation (and I know quite a few who made a move somewhat like Brownson’s—becoming affirming of same-sex relationships as a consequence of one’s child coming out) don’t have the expertise to write a 300-page scholarly treatise that chronicles this “re-imagining.” We should be grateful that Brownson does.

Of course, Brownson’s transparency could lead a suspicious reader to dismiss his book as special pleading. Brownson’s bias of acceptance of his son could be seen as undermining his scholarly objectivity, perhaps fatally. On the other hand, for some of us this confession of personal interest actually helps validate Brownson’s work. It shows that he will understand the human issues involved, in particular the pain caused by restrictive arguments that all too often show a profound disregard for the emotional and relational costs of their agenda. Continue reading

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What does hope even mean?

Ted Grimsrud—Sermon at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—June 26, 2016

I’d like to start with a bad analogy; it links having a strained back with having grandchildren. This is how it goes. About 25 years ago, for the first time I got laid up with a bad back. My distress was triggered when I played in an alumni basketball tournament at my old high school. Before that I had never had back trouble and was not very aware of anyone else having a bad back—I would have thought it was quite rare. But then, as I was gradually recovering, people I knew who had bad backs seemed to come out of the woodwork. Many people kindly commiserated with me, sharing my pain.

Then, almost exactly ten years ago I became a grandparent. Before that I thought very little about people I knew being grandparents. Certainly, I knew that other people were grandparents. But I hadn’t felt it. Then, boom, I had this big thing in common with other people—kind of like having a fragile back….

What does it even mean?

So, the punch line to my sermon this morning ultimately will be about grandchildren—keep that in mind. In a sense, any talk about hope comes down to our grandchildren (real or potential, literal or metaphorical). But for now, I want to mention something else about my grandchildren; that is, grandchild #2, Marja.

Last summer when we were hanging around with 5-year-old Marja, we drove by a bright orange “detour” sign and orange road barriers. “What’s that?” she asked. “A detour sign.” “Detour; what does that even mean?” We chuckled and noticed that she was using that phrase a lot, “what does X even mean?” We later realized that her mother uses that phrase a lot, too—so it’s kind of hipster idiom, I guess. As in, “what does it even mean” when a certain presidential candidate says let’s “make America great again”?

Brian asked me to share this morning about the major transition that’s happening in my life. I wasn’t sure how to do that. I decided that to reflect on how, in my first month of retirement, I suffered from major sciatica pain wasn’t exactly sermon material—nor, even, the joys of greatly reduced sciatica pain. So, instead I want to talk about one of the main ideas I’ve been thinking about. This is a kind of guiding focus for these coming years of theological work in my post-teaching career—the notion of hope.

Continue reading

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A non-apocalyptic reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus

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Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2016

My transition to “retirement” (that is, to full-time writing) has gone a bit slower than I would have hoped due to some unforeseen (relatively minor) health issues. I take it as a sign of a renewing vigor that last night in those often intellectually fecund moments between lights out and sleep I came up with a new title for my next writing project: Healing Politics: A Non-Apocalyptic Reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.

Problems with “apocalyptic”

For some time, I have been working on a thoroughly pacifist interpretation of Revelation. I put it on hold during this past school year and expect very soon to get back to it, in hopes of completing a publishable manuscript before too long. As I have studied, taught, preached on, and written about Revelation over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that the category “apocalyptic” has misled those interpreting Revelation a great deal.

What I hope to show in my book is that Revelation is not “apocalyptic” in the sense that it fits into a genre of literature that is characterized by a futuristic focus or a sense of impending cosmic catastrophe or a sense of hostility toward the historical world. Nor is Revelation “apocalyptic” in the sense of portraying an almighty, judgmental God who will rain down destructive wrath on God’s enemies (or the enemies of the writer of the book).

It is crucial to read this work in terms of the title it gives itself: “the apocalypse of Jesus Christ” (that is, always to link “apocalypse” or “revelation” with “Jesus Christ”). This book sees itself as being a message from and about Jesus. I choose to start with the assumption that the Jesus of this revelation is the same Jesus of the rest of the New Testament. And so I read Revelation expecting that it helps us understand Jesus better and that it wants us to follow the path that Jesus set for his followers as described in the gospels.

And, interestingly (and excitingly, for me), the book actually turns out to lend itself to this kind of reading. It has become clear to me that the Jesus of Revelation is the same as the Jesus of the gospels. This is apparent once the reader’s imagination is cleared of the futuristic, cosmically catastrophic, judgmental, and pro-violence assumptions that putting it into the box of “apocalyptic literature” impose on us.

Of course, there is another entire type of reading that ironically shares quite a few of the scholarly assumptions of the “Revelation as apocalyptic literature” approach. This is the future-prophetic approach popularized in the writings of Hal Lindsey and in the Left Behind books. This approach also reads Revelation looking for futuristic insights and in expectation of cosmic catastrophes—even as it is looked upon with scorn by the scholars. Continue reading

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The case for Bernie Sanders

Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2016

Yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine, Jessica Penner, raised a question to me in a conversation about our current presidential campaign:

Okay, let’s say Bernie gets the nomination and wins the election. HOW will he get done half (or even a quarter) of what he plans with a congress that won’t vet a Supreme Court justice for the sitting president, with a congress that stripped Obamacare to a shadow of what the sitting president envisioned, with a congress that works to get rid of what good Obamacare does (and hurt people like me–a person working full-time but without benefits who also has pesky pre-existing conditions) that our sitting president created. HOW WILL HE DO IT? NO ONE HAS ANSWERED THIS QUESTION. I told your grandson several months ago that Bernie has my heart, but Hillary has my head. Tell me how he will do it, and maybe Bernie might creep into my head.

I don’t have a quick and decisive answer to this challenge, but I think it is worth taking a little time to respond. For me, both my heart and my head tell me that Sanders is the best serious presidential candidate that we have had since Jesse Jackson and that if he were elected at the least his presidency would be way less destructive than a Clinton presidency. I’m not sure Sanders would be all that effective in terms of his agenda, but I am sure Clinton would be devastatingly worse.

I think our current system is failing at an ever faster speed. I don’t have much hope that a Sanders presidency would prevent a catastrophe. However, I do see a glimmer of hope; on the other hand, to me the main difference between a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency would be about levels of despair. So, really, the case for Sanders has mostly to do with the case against Clinton. However, Sanders is long committed to a positive agenda that truly would bring about major changes and might turn the direction of the system around. Even if he has little chance of implementing much his agenda, if he were president there would be some chance. A Clinton presidency would at best push us just a bit more slowly down the slide into catastrophe than a Trump presidency.

Some specific themes:

(1) I don’t think it’s fair to imply that Sanders couldn’t get his agenda approved by a Republican Congress while Clinton could. We can completely agree that the current Congress is set up to foil any legislative initiative any Democratic president would pursue. This is not, in any sense that I can see, a point in Clinton’s favor. She would go into office with a much deeper and longer-established level of antipathy from Republicans than Sanders would, so it seems at least as likely that she would not be able to get her goals passed.

The difference I see would be more on the level of the things the president can accomplish in spite of Congress. It seems like Obama finally at the end of his time in office has decided to push his agenda more forcefully and to some positive effect (e.g., stronger environmental oversight, the opening to Cuba). I’m more confident of Sanders being assertive in this way than Clinton. Plus, even more, I’m more confident of Sanders appointing a Cabinet that would pursue more progressive policies—most obviously with his commitment to resisting the domination of Wall Street we have seen among many of Obama’s appointees (and likely Clinton appointees). Continue reading

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One of the best books yet: A response to Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage

Ted Grimsrud—May 24, 2016

I tend to think it is a good thing that the North American Christian debate about whether churches should be inclusive or restrictive in relation to LGBTQ folks has generated so much literature. The sheer mass of writing is too much to keep up with, but out of this ferment have come some good materials. One of the very best books I’ve yet read on this theme is by a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and theologian, Mark Achtemeier.

The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart (Westminster John Knox, 2014) has many strengths. It’s of manageable length (131 pages), clearly written, based on solid research, a nice mixture of personal engagement and theological reflection, and coherently argued. I would recommend it as a solid book to help those already in the inclusive camp to understand better how the Bible is actually a positive resource for faith communities that have already made a commitment to be inclusive. I would also recommend it for those who aren’t sure what they believe and would like to check out the best advocates for inclusion. And, as well, I would recommend it for those who are confident of their restrictive convictions but would like better to understand the strongest arguments for inclusion. I believe it will contribute to a more accurate and fair-minded conversation going forward.

An evangelical’s change of heart

Part of the appeal of this book is that Achtemeier himself used to affirm the opposite point of view. He cites an article he published in 1996, “The Upward Call of God: Submitting Our Sexuality to the Lordship of Christ,” that was written in support of the movement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to forbid ordination to openly gay and lesbian ministers. Not long after that article, though (which did contribute to the formal reinforcement of restrictive denominational policies), Achtemeier began to change his view. In time he became an advocate for overturning the restrictive policies concerning marriage and ordination—which happened in 2011.

It would have been nice to learn a bit more of Achtemeier’s heart and mind as a restrictive advocate, but he keeps the book focused on his constructive argument for affirmation of same-sex marriage—which is a strength of the book. Achtemeier uses his thinking process in his emerging affirmative view as a device to drive the narrative. This makes the book more readable, though at times it may feel a little contrived. Continue reading

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