Identity Crisis

It happens every time. I’ve been in San Francisco the past few days for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature, listening to lots of papers (30 and counting), responses, and discussion. Some were good, a few were very good, and a very few just were not either of those. But I’ve gained much from all of it.

One truth of which I have been reminded is that I am a generalist in a specialist world. It creates something of an identity crisis in that I am totally overwhelmed by the depth of knowledge many of the presenters have about a very small, yet significant aspect of the Christian faith and its interaction with other ideas about how life works and where the world is headed. What am I doing here among these experts? What is there to contribute to the more technical aspects of these discussions?

Then, usually just before total despair, I am reminded that being a specialist is a gift or a calling or an opportunity that some have been afforded. My place is as a generalist, who needs to know a little about a lot, rather than a lot about a little. I am grateful for the specialists; I have listened to some of them in the fields of ethics, ecclesiology, New Testament studies, pneumatology, and public theology. It’s my role to learn what I can and use it in the wonderful task of guiding the training of church leaders. But while here, I do confess to losing that sense of purpose momentarily.

Losing a sense of who we are and who we are not happens to most us at some point. It happens when we think we know how we would handle things differently if we were the ones making choices in all sorts of situations about which we know far less than those doing the real work–does the phrase “armchair quarterback” come to mind? It happens when we live beyond our financial means. It happens when Christians act like the rest of the world. We forget our true identity, and as a result we take on the persona of someone who has not been redeemed. We act on impulses rather than being led by God’s Spirit, we plan for our benefit rather than the Lord’s intent, we save rather than give, judge rather than heal, and generally curse rather than bless. We have an identity crisis indeed.

And sometimes we think more about the gifts and opportunities that are not ours while neglecting those that are. The small church pastor who isn’t in charge of a megachurch, the teacher who isn’t as well known, the worker who isn’t a company president, the mother who isn’t the neighborhood supermom with her gullying profession, perfect house, and well behaved kids–so many forms that our lack contentment can take.

Could it be that we don’t truly believe that the best is yet to come, and that it has to happen tangibly, now? Could it be that we don’t believe God can take our faithfulness in little and redeem it for much? Just wondering.

Black, White, and Collateral Damage

It doesn’t go away. It only worsens.

What’s next? The removal of the name from the library? The one to which personal funds were donated, rather than being spent on extravagant homes in seclusion from the masses? The expunging of NCAA record books to satisfy Jason Whitlock? Just how far will misplaced moral outrage take us before we pause to reflect on what all of this tells us about our culture and ourselves?

I sit yet again in stunned disbelief as my MSN homepage reports that the Paterno statue will be removed from its location outside Beaver Stadium. I confess that my eyes are not dry, my demeanor is not calm, and my confidence in our ability to deal rationally and fairly with people is entirely broken. It seems entirely irrelevant to most people that Joe Paterno did not molest children, did not witness the molesting of any of them by anyone else, and has not been charged with any crime. At worst, he miscalculated the potential damage that could be done by someone else. Even that has not yet been demonstrated. Jerry Sandusky has not worked for Joe Paterno for twelve years. It seems likewise irrelevant that Joe has positively impacted the lives of literally thousands of people directly and many more indirectly. For anyone who thinks his image has been overblown, that is not his own doing. To anyone who is not aware of the entire legacy, look it up. The case is now being treated in a manner that denies that anything good has been accomplished at all by this man, and that no recounting will ever stack up against what has taken place at the hand of another.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect to me is that this opinion is so widespread. It’s just a few of us with our heads in the sand and our hearts long ago locked up somewhere in Joe and Sue’s attic who think the rush to judgment has been unjust. Or those few who believe that everyone is due the benefit of the doubt, their day in court, their chance to speak, their opportunity to face their accusers. Supposedly, we were all among such a class of people; it was the kind we described ourselves as aspiring to be, the kind that has built a system of justice and judgment that goes out of its way to see to it the right to defend oneself is in need of the greatest protection we can offer. Yet how rare those folks are these past ten days. Where have they all gone? Who has kidnapped them? What principles have been given to us that have been convincingly argued to be superior?

Let’s be clear. This phenomenon has not begun in the case of a well-known football coach. This is simply a highly visible symptom of a societal trend started more than a generation ago. We now seem much more interested in proving the heroes to be flawed than we are in finding someone worthy of admiration if not imitation; it is much more interesting to bring them down than to lift them up. And when we bring them down, we are not content with bringing them to our level and seeing that they are just like us; no, we feel the need to lower them and highlight their flaws rather than their virtues, in the process concluding that we ourselves are better than they after all. We do it with political leaders and candidates, sports figures, and anyone else who cares enough and works hard enough to excel in anything. And once the train leaves the station, it isn’t coming back, picking up an overflow of travelers at every stop.

One of the causes of this malady, I submit, is our moral and spiritual confusion. It is moral confusion in that it implies a very black-and-white construction of moral action, even at a time when we are most uncertain as to where our moral values come from and how they ought to be ordered. In a time of supposed moral relativity we nonetheless hold a particular value as of highest importance–and expect everyone else to implicitly agree with it and recognize and condemn its violations. We can become so fixated upon one particular rule of moral conduct that we judge everything else in that light alone; and we condemn anyone who has broken this rule and anyone who does not echo the same. We are either oblivious to or unconcerned with the damage that is done to people caught along the tracks where this train might run. There are no other perspectives, there are no conflicting values with which persons had to deal, there is no defense for violators; there is only branding. It is spiritual confusion in that we so easily forget to apply the same black and white standard on ourselves, and fail to take seriously that we, too, are among the “all” who have sinned and come short of the glory of God–the One who alone could judge by black and white but does not. He judges by taking our place in His Son.

No doubt there are those who will think that I am minimizing the horrific nature of the sin that has been committed. No. I do disagree with the implication that any amount of collateral damage done to others in our anxiety for justice is acceptable. If further dismantling of a reputation would undo the damage done to the boys involved, I might calculate the moral questions differently. Even then, however, I would hope to leave the discussion more fully aware than ever of my own need for the grace of the Son.

A Game and a Prayer

This isn’t about the molestation incidents on the campus of Penn State University, nor about the ensuing scandal regarding alleged cover-ups, nor about the reporting thereon by news media. Well, not quite. It’s about the early stages of the movement forward for the vast majority of people who in one way or another identify with Penn state and had absolutely nothing to do with any of the above.

There is a very familiar antiphonal chant that rings through Beaver Stadium on a football Saturday. It is repeated in other smaller arenas around campus; it is shouted out in the open around campus and town, and has become a ritual of greeting when alumni are identified by one another, literally around the world. WE ARE, with the return PENN STATE. That simple ritual took on an added significance on Saturday, Nov. 12, as the stadium filled in anticipation of another game and–that’s just it: people didn’t know exactly what to expect.

Some wondered whether the game should have been played at all, fearing that it would signal a minimizing of what had been revealed during the week leading up to the highly anticipated contest with the University of Nebraska. Would it signal business as usual, moving the pain and trauma experienced by some boys back toward the obscurity in which it had resided? Would it indicate that our resolve to be ever more vigilant about caring enough to prevent this sort of thing from happening in our own circles of concern was only momentary? Would it show that the University still didn’t get it?

The game went on. But it was not business as usual. The previous night saw thousands of students gathered at a candlelight vigil of remembrance, accompanied by the Blue Band, most famous for its pregame and halftime rituals on those few Saturdays in the fall. The same students encouraged the wearing of blue, not solely because of its association with university sports teams, but as a measure of solidarity with the cause of child-abuse prevention. Donations were solicited; banners were displayed. And then something I had never seen before in more than fifty years of watching football in person or via television. Instead of the Penn State team running onto the field with arms raised and fists pumping, this group of Nittany Lions walked, arm-in-arm, row by row toward the sideline. “We Stand As One,” read the banner on the sideline, with a clear double meaning on this day. Yes, it was a reference to the players’ unity, acknowledging the distractions from their preparations and ensuing loss of their coach, which could easily have derailed them; but it also referred to the overwhelming resolve of the people who comprise the campus community to be their little brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

That alone made the day special. But what followed was equally amazing. Immediately before the game, players and coaches from both teams walked toward the center of the field, mingling with one another; then, surrounded by the 80-100 returning Penn State players from the past, many of them knelt and were led in prayer by an assistant coach of the Nebraska team. Have you ever “heard” the silence of 107,000 people? So quiet that the un-miked voice of that coach could be heard in the upper deck of the end zone seats (I know because that’s where I sit)?

This was a day when those who did not know otherwise, or those who had forgotten, were informed that Penn State football is more than Joe Paterno and that Penn State University is more than football. An exclamation point was added to that statement when the game ended. Penn State suffered a difficult loss, failing to score on its final meaningful possession. Instead of filing out grumbling, the students in attendance, along with and many alums and other fans, gave the team a standing ovation. At Penn State. After a loss.

Two observations about this remarkable afternoon. The first has to do with that iconic cheer. The reverberating WE ARE . . . PENN STATE changed in meaning to WE . . . are Penn State. WE, the students, the faculty, the alumni, and all who go about teaching, learning, working, serving communities, caring about what happens to the weaker among us, are Penn State at its best. This, not what happened due to the actions of one individual, and not what might have been done to keep those actions from the legal and public eye, is what the place is about. (And I should add that the same can be said for those who represented Nebraska, both on the field and in the stands).

The second observation is about the prayer before the game. The scene was shown on network highlight shows and more than a few general newscasts, and must be available on YouTube. My hope is that it serves as a reminder to those who are believers, to those who have forgotten that that is what they are, and to those who are not sure, that creating resolve and finding effective ways of restoring our health as a society–particularly but not only in the way we treat our children–will require resources beyond our own. We have learned that we cannot trust in our academies, or our government, or our information media, and not even our most charismatic and trusted individual leaders to deliver us from our tendencies toward damaging one another. 107,000 people silently, if unknowingly, stopped in silence as witness was born to our need for God to deliver us from evil and instill in us a greater vision for and commitment to His kingdom.

Yes, it was a good day at “The Beav.”

About That Moral Inventory . . .

Just when I conclude that enough has been said (do ya’ think?!?!) about the news breaking out of University Park this week another part of me wants to say a little more. That part won out and the result is what follows. But this entry is intended to move us forward by looking back. And not primarily by looking back on the events themselves, but at what we might conclude about ourselves as individuals, as a society, and perhaps as believers in Christ within that society. I’d like to use this as a consideration of the factors that would go into the conducting of a moral inventory, something that is surely in order as we reflect on our reactions to the news we have heard.

As noted in an earlier post on this blog (see “Free Press Run Amok . . .”), the fact that so much outcry immediately followed the news indicates rather clearly that we have a moral sense about us that reacts in the face of what we perceive as evil. On one hand, it might be tempting to focus on the emotion itself and reduce our moral nature to the response rather than the cause of the response (ethical emotivism). As indicated in the post, this is inadequate. What Jerry Sandusky did was wrong, and not just because it made us feel a certain way. What university personnel may or may not have done was/was not wrong not because of how we felt about it, but because a fundamental standard was involved. This is demonstrated by the expectation that the people reacting fully expect that those involved would recognize the standard that was broken. It makes no sense, in other words, to react so strongly if we do not assume that there is a common moral standard which the moral actors know full well. We’re not as convinced of relative morality as we thought we were.

Something else that grows out of this recognition of a standard is that we are not its source. Let’s think about something that has been said more than once in the past week. It has to do with Joe Paterno’s undeniably consistent teaching regarding integrity, honesty, fairness, etc. Some will say that all of this teaching, to which all of his former players and assistant coaches attest, has been undermined by what Joe is alleged to have done or failed to do. If Joe were the source of those ideals, they would indeed be undermined. But he is not, as he knows full well; he simply gave voice and, for the vast part of his career at least, his adherance to an already existing set of values. Any failures on his part, or on the part of any other public figure who similarly espouses them, do not undermine the values or the teaching they have done; in fact, they underscore them. That is, the failure of persons both prominent and obscure to live up to standards they both recognize and publicize serves to show that those values are bigger than the person who speaks them, and this is never more clearly seen than when the consequences of failing come to bear. In our inventory, what values are we actually striving to achieve? Which ones will we do our best to pass on to those whom we influence?

From a Christian perspective, we have a sense of justice because of our being made in the image of a just God. The sense of justice we have, however, is not perfect for a number of reasons. And those reasons have a bearing on the case we’ve been discussing. I believe that the moral inventory we take must include an examination of what sort of justice we are looking for, where we will find it, what we will do with it, and how we will set about trying to improve our grip on the concept. As for the first part, we might be looking for one or more of three kinds of justice that have been distinguished by ethicists: distributive, retributive, and restorative. To simplify, when we say “justice,” do we mean that we want a fair distribution for everyone; do we mean that violators “get what’s coming to them” (punitive); or do we mean that we want to do all we can to put things back in order for all concerned, which includes rehabilitation of offender and offended? Public outcry is usually centered on a punitive sense of justice; we simply want someone to pay, thinking this will soothe our violated conscience. Are we willing to invest, however, in the restoring to wholeness, at least as much as possible, of those involved? Another damaging aspect of focusing solely upon retribution is that we can easily focus only on singular acts, allowing us to overlook the longer sweep of a person’s history, whether positive or negative. It tends to condemn many but praise few.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this scandal should be that of where we get our information. Do we not have a moral obligation to get our information as accurately as possible before speaking to this or any other subject? We love to say everyone has a right to their opinions; we ought to say that everyone has the right to the information needed to form an opinion and the obligation to use that information before speaking about it. The national media, particularly the sports media, has mishandled this from day one. People who have not so much as bothered to read the grand jury report just can’t wait their turn to condemn; people already predisposed against Paterno and/or Penn State eagerly gobbled it up and disseminated it further, seeking no corroboration. But this pattern is hardly unique to this situation (can anyone remember the Duke lacrosse team?); we seem to have our likes and dislikes and allow them to filter what information will receive and believe. That’s a moral issue.

We do indeed have a moral compass; and it is functioning quite well, in that it points us in one direction or another. Whether that direction is true north or not, however, is very much up for debate. I mentioned above the existence of a universal moral law to which we give witness whenever we moralize. The source of that law is our true north; the source is the One who implanted the sense of justice within us and reminds us of it when we are confronted with evil. That One also came and bore the retribution for all of our failures, so that we can be free to work toward the restoring of what is fallen. Our moral sense is not best expressed by our identifying of evil; it is in overcoming it. “Be not overcome by evil; but overcome evil with good.” That’s the key to our moral inventory.

A Grace So Rare

Perhaps a new window has opened through which to gain of glimpse of what grace is all about. It’s a window, however, that is found in a difficult place, where one might not expect it. And it comes with a warning: don’t get too close or gaze too long unless you are willing to be thoroughly changed. Not just primped a bit, but actually and totally changed.

Grace belongs to a culture of redemption. Such a culture assumes that there is a huge problem, one from which we cannot extricate ourselves. It assumes that something marvelous, something unexpected, something beyond all imagination will intervene on our behalf, and transform us from creatures of despair into purveyors of hope. Grace does not belong to those whose only hope is to see that others fare no better than oneself, nor to those who insist that each one gets what is coming to them for each and every act performed or decision made. Nor does it come to those who deem it their birthright, presume upon it, and cheapen its character.

A culture of redemption, where grace has been seen and cherished, seeks its extension into more and more broken situations, even those most hopeless in appearance. It refuses to have people defined by their broken condition or by the ones who have been deemed, rightly or wrongly, to be responsible for the particular form of their brokenness. It refuses to assume that anyone, victim and perpetrator alike, lies beyond the reach of grace. It expects at least partial redeeming and restoration in this world and anticipates full restoration in the world to come, the reality of which is demonstrated by what we see now only as its shadows. But they are real shadows. They are cast by a Son, shining upon the ones who understand His ways, have been moved by His self-giving love, intended for all, appropriated by the few. This is a culture that rejoices with every healing step of the injured, every faint smile of the hopeless, every gleam in the eye of the one who understands a new truth for the first time, every victim, turned healer, every villain who turns to lift up a fallen traveler. It celebrates those who teach, those who heal, those who smile in the face of the down-trodden, those who give.

This culture of grace, however, must live within the land of anger, rashness, and retribution. The citizens of this land do not remember well, do not honor consistently, do not care beyond the latest news, do not wait for full disclosure, do not ask questions. They cast judgments not in expectation of restoring anyone or anything; they assume and mourn eternal victimhood for those who have been mistreated, and expect and practice eternal perdition for the guilty. They are led by the monster of public opinion, who does his best work in a heated moment, when anger and outrage are at their peak; he works through the cowardice of those who think they can appease him if only for a moment, by “doing something.”

These cultures occupy the same territory; and at times it is easy to forget to which one we belong. Forgive me if I have too much stock in redemption and grace; it’s because I need it so much. And forgive me if I express too much disgust and disappointment with the culture of retribution; it’s because I believe that something better is possible for everyone. Jesus taught me that when he stretched out his arms twice, once before giving himself to the worst of human anger; and once when he overcame it all in resurrection power, ascending to his throne and telling us he will be with us. I can’t feel at home in any other culture. I just wish it were not so hard to find.

Yes, I grieve for young boys, for Joe, for Jerry, and for the university I once owned proudly. I think Jesus does, too.

Free Press Run Amok and the Irrelevance of Moral Relativism

Yes, another post on the Sandusky matter in State College, Pa. No promises that it will be the last, but no intention to continue indefinitely either.

Whatever became of responsible, objective journalism? What has happened to the once sacrosanct line between the reporting of the news and editorializing thereon? Did we simply become so aware of the difficulties attending to objectivity in collecting facts that we just gave up? Was it a covert politicized strategy to give the appearance of objective reporting, even while deliberately spinning toward an agenda favored by the publishers of the news? Regardless of the cause, the virtual absence of such a line is what we now live with. We are told not just what has happened, but how to feel about it. The proliferation of internet information and misinformation has thrown in the final blow. There is now such an overload of data that one is seriously pressed to find the truth of virtually any incident, particularly one such as the current scandal precipitated by Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of boys on the Penn State campus. Reporters and anchors can’t wait to moralize on every aspect, particularly on what Joe Paterno should or should not have done–even before knowing exactly what he did do or did not do or say, to whom he did or did not say it, and when that might have happened. No matter; don’t wait for facts before staking a good claim on the high moral ground.

A couple of my “favorite” examples (and there are many): NBC’s Ron Allen failing to mention that Sandusky was not a member of the coaching staff at the time of the 2002 incident witnessed by a graduate assistant; the same network interviewing the Harrisburg Patriot-News sports reporter, Bob Flounders, who has been openly on Paterno’s case for years, for a take on what should happen; or the same newspaper’s report of Matt Millen’s emotional ESPN comments which conveniently omitted those portions expressing his affections for Joe and his consistent integrity; and my real winner in the category of irresponsibility and self-serving moralizing–Jason Whitlock, who not only screamed for Paterno to be ousted before the ink was dry, but accused the grand jury of delaying the release of its findings until after Joe’s 409th victory, thereby charging everyone involved with complicity that compromised their integrity. The stupidity of the charge should be obvious–if it is timing motivated by the interests of the people involved, why in the world would it be released days before the biggest game Penn State has faced in a couple of years?

Will any of these or the hundreds of others rushing to get their two cents of judgment on the record ever be held accountable, even if the charges they make prove absolutely groundless? We all know the answer to that, do we not? But what interests me is what is unwittingly revealed by all of this pompous moralizing in which everyone seems bent on participating. The point is this: we do have an implicit idea which we assume to be commonly held as to what the right thing to do might be. And we betray this sense every time we pronounce our judgments or point our thumbs over the actions of others.

For all the talk of moral relativism, of the idea that the rightness of certain actions differs from person to person, that truth is dependent on the worldview, if not the individual mindset of the person, people really do seem to expect a common standard. That is, particularly in the case of Coach Paterno, there is undeniably an implicit assumption that there is a distinct moral standard which not only the speaker and the listener, but the coach himself is expected to be aware of. If we really believed that morality is relative, why would there be such moralizing over what Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, or even Jerry Sandusky did or did not do?

It will not suffice to say that say that certain actions are known by “everybody” to be right or wrong. We might acknowledge this, but then fail to recognize that very few, if any, moral decisions are made without a set of competing interests being involved. And the manner in which moral actors give priority to one set of values, or the limited awareness they have of the consequences of one course of action or another, or the other issues of life that cloud their judgment at any given time all contribute to the final decision.

We are moral beings. We recognize good and evil, even if imperfectly due to factors listed above and others as well. We approve and disapprove. And we cannot simply write off all moral language as emotional preferences and responses couched in ethical terms, as some prominent academics have suggested (this view does not account for the meaning or existence of moral language in the first place). The relativism we tend to invoke seems to have more to do with minimizing one’s own failures and maximizing those of others than it does with telling us the truth about a moral universe. And in a world that has lost its way, among people who do not know where they fit in that universe, there exists a tendency to bring down anyone who has achieved more in the world than we see ourselves accomplishing. We may not feel great about ourselves, and we don’t think anyone else should, either. So we point fingers–and in the process, we bear witness to the moral sense with which God has made us. And that includes reporters.

What to Do with the Thumb? Thoughts on The Sandusky Scandal

Yes, this is a different sort of post, though it does fit in with the stated purpose of the blog–interpeting events through Christian narrative. But it is also prompted by what strike me as troubling and conflicted cries in the wake of announcements coming from Harrisburg about events at Penn State University.

Let me set this out in the beginning for the benefit of those readers who do not know me personally. I am a Penn State grad and proud of it; it is, ironically to some, the place where my faith was freed to think. I am a life member of the Alumni Association and currently of part of the Nittany Lion Club. I have followed its football fortunes and misfortunes, including the times it was robbed of national championships. I have been to most of the home games over the past eight seasons and even joined journeyed to the Rose Bowl a couple of years ago. So no pretensions of total objectivity here.

Now the hard part. What do I do with my thumb? You know, the opposable appendages that separate humans from other species. We use them for a wide variety of purposes, many of which make life as we know it possible. Aside from making and using tools of all kinds, however, we also seem to employ the thumb as a signal of our reactions, dispositions, and feelings. For instance, there is the familiar up or down to indicate approval or disapproval, most famously tied to the saving or taking of the life of a defeated gladiator. There’s the placing of this wonderful appendage on the nose, accompanied by a wave of the remaining portion of the hand to indicate disrespect or dismissal; and then there’s the upward extended thumb thrust over the shoulder in baseball, indicating “you’re out!”

What is common among the above is what such uses of the thumb indicate about another factor that sets us apart from mere animals–the making and expressing of moral judgments. In our supposedly more advanced society, we all sit in the emperor’s box and react to any situation our arena called television brings before us. We’re all enlightened individuals, all qualified to make judgments on all sorts of cases in which we have no more personal involvement than an emperor with a gladiatorial match. We see ourselves as having the right or even the duty of casting the thumb in one direction or another, even when we are hopelessly ill-informed or uninformed about the matter at hand.

Witness the frenzy–no other word will do–over the Jerry Sandusky allegations. I say allegations not because I do not think there is substance behind them (I’d love to have reasonable doubt here), but because we have this “innocent until proven guilty” mantra guiding our courts. That same mantra, of course, is a total farce when it comes to the individual judgments we somehow feel obligated to pass. We do not wait for proof; we settle for any unconfirmed report that supports our subjective preference for what we want to be the case. We thumb the nose at actual deliberation over collected, tangible facts. That’s understandable with regard to Sandusky; less so when trying to weigh the actions or inactions of those who came upon knowledge of the incidents.

None of us really knows who said what to whom and when they said it. We make our speculation according to previously formed opinions regarding the people involved, then filter in or out any pieces of rumor/gossip/evidence/opinion that will support this reading, and then we will put our thumb in the air accordingly. For many, it is difficult to accept a contrary verdict even when all the facts become known. Let us not forget that whatever culpability anyone at Penn State has in the handling of this case, it was precipitated by one man’s heinous actions. That man was not a university employee, i.e., not a member of the coaching staff, having left the team three years earlier (a fact conspicuously missing from NBC’s report on the Nightly News today, Nov. 8). One of those actions was witnessed by someone then a graduate assistant to Joe Paterno; he has since been added to the fulltime staff. He reported to Paterno, who reported to the Athletic Director, following the chain of command specifically spelled out in policy manuals. Apparently, the report went nowhere from there for some time.

The question that has overwhelmed everything else in this case has been whether Joe Paterno did enough; wasn’t there was a moral obligation, a higher standard he ought to have followed? This is where it gets sticky. Who is in charge of administering the higher standard? What does it entail? What are the penalties appropriate for failing to follow it, or for following it partially? How are we to know? Who does the reporting of whether or not it has been met? Again, I don’t know what Paterno was told or what he reported–and neither do any of the rest of us. But I do know that thumbs have been flying nonetheless.

What about others involved, especially those who knew and did not report to police as required by law? I don’t know; let’s wait and find out. Nothing is gained and much is potentially lost if rashness born out of disgust rules the day.

What makes this a subject for this blog is our cherished “right” to wield the thumb on such matters. It seems to me that Jesus had something to say about how we judge others. Read carefully here. This is not a statement regarding the rightness or wrongness of any individual’s decisions in this matter. That will be plain enough in due time, just as it is already plain that Sandusky’s actions were reprehensible. We’re aware that they are horribly wrong. But especially when it comes to passing sentence on the other individuals, we need to step back. The university extended to a non-profit organization dedicated to giving assistance to underprivileged kids the use of university facilities. It did not have to do that. Thumbs up. In so doing, it unwittingly gave opportunity for something else to happen; and even after the initial report, access continued for Sandusky. Thumbs way down.

As for Paterno, it is deeply grieving to me that so many people are ready to cast him out with no regard to his service to Penn State on many levels. How many times has he earned an upward thumb? To think that he would be cast out before the facts are all sorted is unconscionable.

But here’s my real point in writing on this subject: why do we insist on wielding the thumb of judgment–not just on what should be done in a specific case, but on the people involved themselves? We are complicated beings, each of us operating with a unique set of circumstances and hurts, successes and failures, holes in our hearts, and wounds in our psyches which will never be apparent to anyone. Even Sandusky. That’s what sin does. It worms in, sets up shop, and explodes into a large mess of collateral damage, never being limited in the scope or extent of its victimizing. Here it may well destroy the work and contributions of several men, tarnish a university, bring to naught a long-standing reputation, and rob many people of their sense of pride and identity in Penn State. And that is all in addition to what takes place in the lives of the boys who were violated in the first place, whose pain we know to be of a sort that tends to foster repeating the same crimes on others later in life. I hate sin. I’m reminded of that in these past days.

I also recognize sin in me, knowing that were things a little different I could easily have become one deserving the hatred of others and the judgment of God. That fact alone is teaching me to put my thumb in my pocket. And pray.

King Jesus Gospel: Conclusion

In hearing Scot McKnight’s retelling of the gospel we have been encouraged to think of what the term itself signifies in the New Testament. To that end he draws a sharp distinction between a (false) gospel in which personal salvation becomes the content and the of Jesus the means, and the true gospel, which is nothing other than the story of Jesus as the completion of the story of Israel. To put it more simply, he fears that we have moved the center of the gospel from what God does to save the world to our decision. The concluding chapters of The King Jesus Gospel offer a summary of the differences between the soterian and the biblical gospel (Ch. 9) and a sketch of what a gospel culture church looks like (Ch. 10).

In “Gospeling Today” (9), McKnight begins his list of six comparisons with what would at first appear as a subtle distinction if one had not read to this point. The “gospeling” in Acts declares the significance of Jesus who is the Messiah, thereby summoning listeners to repnt and confess Him; the soterian gospel seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior. Personal saving cannot be embraced without reference to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel. Second, following from the first, is that the gospel of the apostles is framed and driven by that story of Israel; the soterian gospel is framed and driven by an atonement story. Here he notes that neither Paul not Peter sought to explain the workings of atonement in Jesus but both declared it as fact. But the most significant of the six, at least in my reading, is the comparison drawn between descriptions of the problem the gospel resolves. This section (fourth in McKnight’s listing) lays out the goal of God’s creating of humanity, which he takes to be serving in the temple of God’s earth as His eikon (following Walton and others); this is the “fundamental human assignment.” This leads to a presentation of the story of Israel and how it is completed in Jesus. It is, indeed, a “grand story” showing the rightful position of Jesus as Lord–all of which is set in contrast to a badly impoverished gospel of personal salvation for which the Bible is hardly even needed. It is out of this story that McKnight’s other comparisons grow; this one is central.

“Creating a Gospel Culture” (Ch.10) concludes the book. Here McKnight addresses on of my earlier concerns, namely the work of the Holy Spirit in the announcing of the gospel. Just as He guided the preaching and adapting of the apostles, He does so with today’s faithful church, moving in unanticipated ways to prepare both speaker and hearer, and therefore prayer becomes one of the keys to creating a gospel culture. Others include the necessity of knowing our story–both in terms of a church knowing the fully why the gospel is good news and in terms of interpreting our personal stories in its light. We become people of the story. We do this through a renewed attention to the church’s calendar (my students have heard that one before) and to its sacraments. It is only through being fully immersed in this story that we will be able to recognize, expose, and deconstruct the alternative stories of the world around us.

Most of what McKnight offers in the book resonates in me; I have had many thoughts, some of which have been expressed in classes over the years, which are given some useful handles in this book. I could quibble with some points here and there (for instance, I found the last chapter somewhat short on new suugestions; but this is not his primary field). But instead my closing observations are given for generating some discussion, especially among those who have read the book with me. Those thoughts center on what we are offering to the world under the title of “gospel.” It occurs to me that it is the one thing we have not looked into. Churches have tried for more than a generation to “be relevant” in their real enough concern for “lost” individuals and even entire cultures. The problem is not lack of concern, nor is it an unwillingness to change certain things. Over my lifetime we have changed the style of the building, the order of worship, the kinds of music we will and will not use, the social and cultural activities we will and will not engage in as Christians, the way we dress when we attend church functions, the expectations of members, and a host of other peripheral matters.

But do any of these matter if we are unwilling to look at what we offer? At the end of the day, we must tell the truth. And to tell it we must know it in all its fullness. The story of Jesus as Messiah and Lord is the gospel. Nothing short of that will confront people with a reason to bow down and then rise up in His power. Maybe there are other things taht need to change; but I have this great suspicion that none of it will matter if we do not truly have good news.

King Jesus Gospel, Part 4

Thus far in our review of Scot McKnight’s new book we have noted his interest in identifying the true, intended meaning of “the gospel.” He has argued that the term has mistakenly become identified with a (personal) Plan of Salvation, rather than being the story which makes salvation possible. That story is the story of Jesus, who himself is the culmination of the the story of Israel. Rather than being about how one is saved, it is the saving story itself. When these are confused, as occurred in the aftermath of the Reformation, the focus of Protestant (especially evangelical) preaching moves from Jesus to our response to Jesus. This in turn keeps us from seeing what was at the heart of the message Jesus himself declared, and turns us toward a course of “sin management” (a term borrowed from Dallas Willard) rather than the fostering of a true gospel culture.

Today I want to consider Chapters 6-8, in which McKnight lays out the case that both Jesus and his disciples preached the same gospel that Paul and the early church after him preached, the same being captured in the creeds and confessions of the early church. To many faithful believers this may appear to be a “no-brainer” of sorts; the idea that Paul invented Christianity by distorting the supposedly simple meaasge of Jesus, or some such notion, is far more prevalent in the academy than in the pew. But what is at stake here is also a reconsideration of the subtle ways in which ideas just as foreign to the overall tenor of scripture find their way into the common understanding of what our faith is really about. That is, if the words, the miracles, the parables of Jesus are cut off from their larger gospel context they will be put into service of other agendas, such as creating a salvation culture.

Chapter 6 begins by asking whether Jesus preached the gospel; but it must be reiterated that asking this question is not the same as asking whether Jesus preached justification. That question, or the counterpart that asks whether Paul preached the kingdom of God, assumes a difference that is swallowed up by the bigger concept of the real gospel–the story of Jesus, and Jesus as the fulfillment of the story of Israel. After encouraging us to see the four New Testament gospel accounts as just that–four accounts of the one gospel–McKnight points to the shape of this gospel in all four canonical tellings. They are heavily weighted toward the final week in the life of Jesus, with opening narrative which, especially in the case of Mark, orient us quickly toward that decisive week. We should not miss the many direct and indirect ways in which the movement takes place in a way which unmistakably ties Jesus and his mission to the hopes and aspirations of Israel, seen especially in the songs in Luke’s narration of the birth of Jesus (and John). Pointing again to the coherence with 1 Cor. 15, McKnight summarizes the gospel story by saying that:
1. The gospels are about Jesus.
2. They are about Jesus completing the story of Israel.
3. They are about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, exaltation, and future coming.
4. They reveal that this Jesus saves his people from their sin.

Chapter 7 seeks to answer the question of whether this gospel was the evangelists’ own construction or whether it is the message Jesus himself spoke. Included in the discussion is the question of Jesus’ own self-awareness of his messaianic identity, answered by comparison with what John knew about both his own and Jesus’ identity. His overall aim is to convince us that Jesus indeed preached himself as the “completion of Israel’s story in such a way that he was the saving story himself.” This being so, “the entire focus (shifts) from the benefits of salvation to the Person who himself is the good news.” And the saving he does is unavoidably in the context of a kingdom, a poiont the author establishes in a variety of intertwining sets of evidence. This evidence includes the aforementioned songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon linked with Psalm 72, the prominence of the feasts of Israel as the backdrop for Jesus’ words and actions, and the number of the apostles. It is the long-awaited kingdom that is arriving in Jesus, one which overturns oppressive ways of doing human community. McKnight’s conclusion is that Jesus 1) went to the Bible to define who he was and what his mission was; 2) believed he was completing scriptural passages; 3) predicted and embraced his death and resurrection; 4) therefore preached the gospel because he preached himself; and 5) preached the gospel because he saw himself completing Israel’s story.

Chapter 8, upon which I will make little comment, completes the loop by demonstrating that the preaching of the apostles in the Book of Acts follows precisely the same pattern as Paul layed out in 1 Cor. 15, and that the pattern itself is nothing other than a summary of the Jesus story. All of the preaching to which we have witness is a declaration of the mighty acts of God in Jesus, to which response is made. Again, the message itself is the good news–not what happens in and to those who do respond, importanat as that is.

I follow McKnight quite easily, and would have a hard time quibbling with the manner in which he lays out the case. It is compelling. This begs the question: if this is the content Paul’s preaching, of Jesus’ own preaching, and of the apostolic witness itself, from which great results ensued, what is being preached in its place? Do we continue to preach this gospel? What have we added or subtracted? One open question as I anticipate the remainder of The King Jesus Gospel is of the place of the Holy Spirit in this proclamation. Another is how a culture of this gospel is created. Perhaps theses are related concerns. We’ll see in what follows.

King Jesus Gospel, Part 3

We’ve been (slowly, at the request of a few and due to a minor eye injury) reviewing Scot McKnight’s recent book, The King Jesus Gospel. Though today’s post will deal only with Chapter 5, the pace will pick up in the days ahead. Look for daily posts, covering longer sections hereafter.

It’s a daunting task to convince people that their understanding of the gospel has been somewhat, if not significantly, distorted. Of course–does not our very salvation rest upon this? And have we not been faithfully repeating and living out what we have received from our faithful and trusted pastors and teachers? If any author is to be taken seriously in making such charges, that author is going to have to establish his case in both history and the Bible itself; we should have no interest at all in new gospels (this, by the way, is a major problem in Rob Bell’s Love Wins). McKnight recognizes and accepts the challenge. Chapter 5 of King Jesus tackles the history problem; subsequent chapters locate his idea of gospel in the four New Testament witnesses to Jesus, life, death, and resurrection.

For some Christians, especially those who have studied seriously in a seminary, the fifth chapter is a review of things already learned regarding the early Christian witness to the gospel, and how the biblical summaries, such as 1 Cor. 15, are reflected in the teachings of the church fathers of the first generations of believers. The creeds of the church were developed in order to be summations of faith’s content; their being parallel to Paul’s gospel is surely not accidental. This is what Christians believe–the story of Jesus incarnate, living, teaching, healing, dying, rising, and ascending, located specifically within a trinitarian framework. McKnight recognizes, however, that this history and its valuation of the creeds is not something many contemporary Christians are familiar with. He speaks for many who have known only those forms of church that speak of the creeds as man-made theological sophistry and obfuscation, rather than as summaries proclaiming the gospel itself–“gospeling” in his word, evangelizing in other words.

So what happened? If the creeds tell the gospel, and reflect the fact that the church was a gospel culture, how did the salvation culture grow up and eventually it, and in the process change the understanding of what the gospel itself is? McKnight, somewhat reluctantly, lays much at the feet of the Reformation and its formulations of the faith. To put it briefly, foundational documents such as the Augsburg, Genevan, Helvetic, and Westminster Confessions move the story of Jesus from its central place in Christian identity, putting other propositions into prominence. What other propositions? Those dealing with the Bible itself, the fallen and futile nature of man, salvation in Jesus, regeneration in Jesus, righteousness in Jesus, and the remission of sins. The point is not that any of these are incorrectly spoken. The point is that the focus has shifted from the story of Jesus to the story of man. And this proves to be decisive in that the test for membership in the church shifts from “I confess”–that is, I “say together with the church” that Jesus is the truth–to demonstrating that “I have had this experience.”

What many of us as leaders and teachers have struggled with is the consequence of this shift. Our churches and congregations are defined by the emphasis on salvation rather than on the story of Jesus itself. That is, we have taught that what one needs to have a certain experience–and we do not know what to do with them after they take us seriously. What’s left after the altar encounter, after the praying of a sinner’s prayer, after a testimony not of Jesus, but of what Jesus has done to guarantee heaven? The best we can do is encourage them to hold on tightly until they collect on the promise when they die. Salvation has usurped the place of the story of Jesus–and a skewed version of salvation at that.

While McKnight does not draw out all of the implications, I think a few stand out. One of them has to do with who is doing the proclaiming. Anyone can preach the salvation gospel and get people “saved” in that sense; and the number of churches (including my own denomination to my great dismay) have succumbed to this view. If the goal is to preach a salvation message and then let people to their best to manage sin (McKnight refers to that phrase used by Dallas Willard to highlight this phenomenon) until they die, no special efforts at training need to be made. But if we are truly interested in restoring a gospel culture, where the making of disciples overshadows the making of decisions, we will need people who know the story of Jesus inside and out, not only that they may declare it, but that they may identify the competing thoughts and ideas so prevalent in the culture of the world we live in. Come to think of it, this one implication is enough for the day. And I’m very interested in your thoughts about it.