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The Fall and Family 2: Generational Sanctification

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

On Tuesday I wrote about a pattern in Genesis that I find powerful for explaining the human condition: the consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve are felt in the family. The most intimate human relationships are where human sin is most acutely evident.

What I didn’t say, and should have made clear, is that God doesn’t defer hope from the time of Abraham until the time of Christ. The church is where God’s family is restored completely. But right there in Genesis, God is already bringing healing and wholeness.

Abraham is the first in the family to follow God. And he isn’t very good at it. He’s faithful with some things—he’s loyal to Lot and generous in his dealings. But the things Abraham gets wrong, he gets really wrong. Twice he claims his wife is his sister because he fears foreign kings will kill him to marry her. He fails to trust God to provide him an heir, so he sleeps with his wife’s maidservant. Abraham struggles to walk closely with God from the beginning of his story to the end.

Isaac, Abraham’s son, is no model Israelite either. But he makes steps in the right direction. Isaac, too, tries to pass of his wife, Rebekah, as his sister. But he only does it once. That means he’s twice as faithful as his dad.

Isaac’s son Jacob is a scoundrel. There’s really no way around that. But Jacob’s relationship with God is more intimate that his father’s or grandfather’s. He wrestles with God by the Jabbok River. Contending with God seems like a bad thing, really. But I think the point is Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel after this episode) realized God was his only hope. Jacob couldn’t rely on his wits to keep him out of trouble. He needed God’s blessing. And he refused to let God leave without blessing him. It may have been superficial faith. But it was authentic faith.

Jacob’s son Joseph was the real deal. He was Israel’s first theologian. He started out sort of a brat, but when he grew up he was the first in his family to be able to identify how God was at work in his circumstances. When he is finally reunited with his brothers in Egypt, years after they sold him into slavery, he told them, “It was not you who sent me here, but God. God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:8, 7). He recognized God’s broader plan in his brother’s sin: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph understood the character of God, and trusted it, more than Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob before him.

What on earth is the point? The point is that God worked to sanctify this family generation by generation. They grew closer to God over time, not because Joseph was so much smarter or holier than Abraham, but because God is faithful. And the closer they drew to God the more grace and forgiveness is evident in their families (Gen. 50:15-21, for example). That’s good news. That means the sins of fathers—divorce or abuse or whatever—don’t have to visit their sons and grandsons. It means we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Not because we are smarter or holier than our parents, but because God is faithful.

The Fall and the Family

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

In just two weeks (four class periods; six hours), my Bible survey class and I sprinted through the fifty chapters of Genesis. Tuesday we make our way into Exodus and out of Egypt. We’ll be in Babylonian captivity before you know it.

The benefit of this schedule we’re keeping is that by the time the course ends in mid December, students will have been exposed to the entire biblical story in one semester. It’s a view from 30,000 feet. And as I reported here, that’s more than most of them have ever had before. What’s disappointing about our schedule is that it leaves us very little time to reflect on some of the critical details. If the 30,000-foot view gives students a sense of the terrain, it doesn’t necessarily equip them to traverse it on their own. It doesn’t give us the opportunity to truly abide in any one episode of the story for long.

One thing I wish I’d had more time to explore is this (if you’ll excuse the somewhat grim reflections): when theologians talk about the consequences of the fall of humanity into sin (Genesis 3), we typically talk about the metaphysical effects of that rebellion. We are now, because of Adam and Eve, sinful men and women estranged from a righteous God. That’s true, of course. Paul spends a lot of energy in Romans making this point. What we talk about less, though, are the immediate, mundane consequences of the fall. Men and women are separated from God, indeed. But they are also driven from each other. They realize they are naked, and they are ashamed (Gen. 3:7). And that’s just the beginning.

There are echoes of the fall throughout Genesis. Every marriage in Genesis after Eden is marked by betrayal and manipulation. Abraham and Isaac both lie to protect themselves by claiming their wife is actually their sister (Abraham: Gen. 12 & 20; Isaac: Gen. 26). Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah. Rebekah helps Jacob trick his father into giving him Esau’s birthright. Every sibling relationship is fraught with conflict. Cain kills Abel. Jacob deceives (or takes advantage of) Esau. Joseph’s brothers resent him because, frankly, he’s kind of a jerk.

Yes, the fall severed the relationship between humans and their Creator. But the way humans experience that estrangement from God in Scripture is in the total breakdown of family relationships. The inalienable truth that mommies love daddies and they love their children lasts only a few pages in Genesis. The most intimate of human relationships become the venues in which the consequences of sin are most apparent.

Evangelists work hard to convince nonbelievers that we have offended a just God and need his help to atone for our sins. They aren’t wrong. But maybe it would be easier to convince skeptics of our dreadful situation if we asked them to look first at their family. Surely there’s enough divorce, abuse, neglect, and exploitation to convince even the most skeptical that the Bible understands the human condition.

It is remarkable to me that (if I’m right), the solution the Bible offers to this family problem is not the renewal of the family. It’s the church, the “household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). It’s the safe place where people injured by their earthly families—and the single and the orphaned and the widowed—find spiritual family to nurture them in the Lord. God’s goal is not simply to make us right with him. He also provides the community in which all our most intimate relationships can be restored and sanctified. Thanks be to God!

God and Grammar

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

This afternoon in class, we’ll spend an hour and fifteen minutes talking about Genesis 1 and 2. It is to my advantage that Genesis is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I could go for hours today.

It is to my distinct disadvantage, on the other hand, that this is one of those parts of the Bible that everyone is quite confident they know. Familiarity can be a liability when it comes to learning. If my students assume they know what I’m going to say before I say it, they are much more likely to tune me out. So my job, as I see it, is to make this familiar story strange enough that they can see it afresh.

One way I’ll do this is by trying to convince them that Genesis 1 and 2 are not ultimately about creation. Creation is the setting but not the subject. The subject is God himself, the Creator. I know this because grammar told me. “God” is the subject of nearly all the verbs in Genesis 1 especially:

“In the beginning God created”

“And God saw”

“Then God said”

“Then God rested”

A previous generation of Christians misinterpreted Genesis 1, especially, by insisting that it is a scientific explanation of the origin of the world. That the primary purpose of the chapter is to silence Darwin and his kin by undermining modern evolutionary theories about where we come from. This isn’t entirely wrong; the author of Genesis absolutely wants us to know that the earth exists and people inhabit it because God chose freely to create all things. We are no accident. Nevertheless, too often defenses of the creation account take the focus off God as its subject. People start talking about radiocarbon dating, the definition of yom (the Hebrew word translated “day” in Genesis 1), why 6,000-year-old rocks would look like they were billions of year old. And so on. More often than not, the subject of those conversations is the creation itself.

My generation makes a different but equally dangerous mistake. Many of us are less interested with trying to harmonize biblical and scientific accounts of the beginning than our parents and grandparents were. Instead we talk more about what the creation story means in practical terms. And for many of us that translates into a concern for creation care. We recycle, eat sustainable and local foods, use cloth diapers, bike to work, or whatever because we feel responsible to be good stewards of God’s good creation. Unfortunately, we are just as likely to make creation itself the subject of our conversations: “Creation is good.”

We are right to insist that the earth and everything in it exists by design and not by chance. And we are right to ask, in light of that fact, how we ought to treat the planet. But I hope I can help my students see today that if we set these issues aside for a moment, the grammar tells us God is the subject of the story. The author wants us to be preoccupied with his character and not his creation.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Today I begin teaching a class that I took as a student—in this very same classroom—thirteen years ago. There’s something surreal about this situation, and I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on what it is exactly. But I’ve figured it out.

It’s not my first time to teach a college class. I’ve been doing my best to mold impressionable young minds for the last three years at a community college in Chicagoland. I’m more or less over the first-day jitters. It is my first time to teach as a PhD. And you can bet your sweet bippy I’ll insist on being called “Dr. O’Brien.” But that’s not it either.

What strikes me is that when I entered this classroom thirteen years ago, my primary responsibility was to ask questions. Today these kids expect me to have answers. Then my job was to deconstruct misperceptions, challenge inherited interpretations, question everything. (It’s like the French Revolution, south Arkansas edition.) And, sure, an important part of what I’ll do this semester is ask students to follow me into new territory as we leave behind misinterpretations and misinformation. But my goal is constructive, not destructive. Thirteen years ago I questioned everything with very little caution for where I might end up. Hopefully this semester, as I pass through this course a second time, my questions will to dry land.

I guess what I mean is that this time around I’m accountable to thirty-something young Christians who trust me to be responsible with their faith (and whose parents are praying that I’ll be responsible with their faith). I don’t have the luxury of pondering and speculating out loud, consequences be damned.

Make no mistake—I’ll ask hard questions. And I sure hope they do too. (I love questions!) I’m eager to push them and pull them and, if need be, drag them through this sixteen-week survey of the Bible. But I’m humbled by the weight of what’s going on in these discussions.

So this is what it’s like to be a grown up?

What Difference Does Tradition Make?

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

My people on all sides of the family are low-church anti-traditionalists. Many of them bend in an anti-institutional direction in general. They like their privacy. They don’t like to be told what to think or how to behave—not by Hollywood, not by the government, not by dead Christians they’ve never met.

This is the earth I was grown in.

Some of these convictions stuck with me. My autopsy (and my writing, too, I hope) will reveal a deep vein of populism running head to toe. But despite my anti-traditionalist upbringing, I’ve found great comfort and guidance in the Christian tradition. Here are just a few ways I find tradition makes a difference for my faith.

It offers a framework for questions.
When I was a teenager, I often got the impression it was unfaithful to ask faith-related questions. And boy did I have questions. What I’ve learned from tradition is that there’s nothing wrong with questioning. But there are wrong ways to question. (Here’s a great recent book on just this topic.) The Christian tradition gives me a stable place to stand while I ask my hard questions. Not to mention lots of examples of faithful questioners.

It gives direction for discipleship.
In every age Christians decry certain vices and celebrate certain virtues. It can be very easy to convince ourselves that we are good Christians because we don’t cuss or because we vote Democrat or because we have deep convictions. Tradition reminds us that the things other generations pursued—like holiness and justice and simplicity and compassion—are as important today as ever, whether we recognize it or not.

It points out my presuppositions about Scripture.
If you’ve seen this book you’ll know that I think we sometimes get Scripture wrong. The cheapest way I know of to have a cross-cultural experience is to read old writers. Tradition helps us see what we take for granted; it illuminates our blind spots. Reading texts from other centuries has taught me more about myself than anything written in my own generation. And the better I know myself, the better I read the Bible.

It helps me make sense of the present.
At some point I began to wonder why the faith community I grew up in believed what we believed and behaved how we behaved. This book by Nathan Hatch explained it. Our instincts in the twentieth century were formed by debates and battles from a hundred years before. The tradition helps me understand why things are the way they are so I know how to live faithfully in the present.

It gives me hope for the future.
God has been at work through his church for two thousand years. We face real challenges today. But history bears out the truth of Scripture: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” There is hope for the future because God has been faithful in the past.

I’d love to hear from you. What difference does tradition make for you?