Sunday, June 29, 2008

real faith (real, real faith)

60 Minutes tells the story of the vicar of Baghdad, sent to minister to the Anglican community in Baghdad nine years ago (when Saddam Hussein statues still figured in official Iraqi decorating policy). The interview makes clear that Christianity was a religio licita under Saddam, and according to this criterion at least the current situation in Iraq is bleak indeed.

I recommend this piece with both a heavy heart and with some reluctance. I can't say the reporting was in any way impressive; Scott Pelley's ability to avoid the really interesting questions is certainly legendary and may in fact be unrivaled. But the man at the heart of the story is, perhaps, the most credible professional Christian I have seen on tv ever. The Reverend Canon Andrew White has done what most Christians (myself included) can only dream of — he's earned the right to be heard. When (apparently) all the other Christian men have fled Baghdad (and I type this last phrase without any sense of condescension or condemnation), White remains to minister to (one of?) the last underground Christian congregations in that war-torn city, leading our beleaguered sisters and brothers in worship, feeding the poor, and encouraging the faith of those who claim Doubting [!] Thomas as their spiritual ancestor.

The question Pelley didn't ask — the question I wanted to yell at the tele — was, Why, Reverend Canon White, do you stay in Baghdad to minister in what may be the most dangerous place on earth for confessing Christians?

I admit I have suspicions of an answer. But these are suspicions of my answers, and to be perfectly honest, I haven't earned the right to be asked that question. I want to know why Andrew White stays in Baghdad. And even if he answers exactly how I would have expected, the answer itself would have been legitimated for being his answer and not mine.

I would give my right ring finger to serve Holy Communion to a single woman or child of Reverend Canon White's congregation. But even then I wouldn't deserve such an honor. These are modern-day heroes of the faith. I am privileged to be called their brother in the Lord. This week, as I grade a half-dozen undergraduate assignments and continuing researching for a book idea I'm working on, I pray that my work for the kingdom might be the dimmest and distantest star shining in the same sky illumined by the blazing sun of the faith of Baghdad.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

My summer job

Back in late May when the excitement of having all my grades finished and turned in to the Registrar was still fresh in my gut, I came across this excellent essay (click the title of this post). As a faculty member of a small, private Evangelical college, I would be lying through the Cheshire-cat grin on my face if I didn't say that summer was my favorite time of year. But many of my coworkers (staff and administration more than other faculty) seem to think that I look forward to summer break with tears in my eyes because I get to sit in my air-conditioned house watching Judge Judy and eating Doritos for three months. Even when I explain that summer is actually a busier time of my year (though I wouldn't say busiest), the response I get (nearly word-for-word) is, "Yeah, but you're working on personal things."

I don't need to describe the blood, sweat, and tears that go into producing academic papers, articles, and monographs, and most of us are only too painfully aware of how much effort goes into class prep from June through August. Rachel Toor poetically describes the banality of academic work if not academic life. But I would like to make one point, which I suspect applies to many — if not most — of us: I look forward to the summer months with such passion not because these are the "lazy days of summer" where I can begin to catch up with my over-worked DVR. My enthusiasm for the summer springs from the fact that, during these months more than the other nine, I can choose what work will command my attention and what work will gather dust on my desk. No grading, no lectures, no exam writing, no student complaints . . . from June to August I get to pursue my own interests. Does this mean that I'm "working on personal things"? Maybe. But this work also serves the interests of my students, my classes, and my institution. It is work properly called. It is my summer job.

Not a descent into hell

A few weeks ago on Primal Subversion Sean posted some comments on the vexing problem at 1 Pet. 3.18—22. His point is very well taken, namely that the "proclamation" [ἐκήρυξεν; ekēruxen] Jesus made "in the Spirit" [ἐν ᾧ; en hō, referring back to πνεύματι (pneumati) at the end of 3.18] to the "spirits in prison" [τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν; tois en phylakē pneumasin] refers to the Christian community's proclamation in the hostile areas of NW Asia Minor of Jesus' victory over death. I think he rightly understands that Peter is not referring to any cosmic preaching of Jesus in the world's (or heaven's) nether regions. The problem remains, however, that the reference to these spirits' disobedience in the days of Noah [ἀπειθήσασίν . . . ἐν ἡμέραις Νῶε; apeithēsasin . . . en hēmerais Nōe; 3.20] hasn't found adequate explanation. I'd like to propose a solution. What follows is an extremely condensed version of an argument I have made elsewhere.

The whole passage up to 3.18 is concerned with a judicial, or at least an interrogative situation (cf. 3.15); either way, the focus here is squarely on the imagery of opposition. Opposition is the link between the Anatolian Christians' readiness to offer an answer to anyone who asks about their curious hope before 3.18, on the one hand, and the reference to Noah and the discussion of Christian social norms after 3.18, on the other.

While the author acknowledges the difference between Christ’s salvific death/resurrection and the suffering of the churches in Asia Minor, he simultaneously points to a vital link between Christ's suffering and the community's. Christ’s suffering paved the way for humanity’s salvation; similarly, the suffering of Christians for their righteous lifestyle in Christ serves to proclaim that offer of salvation to the unbelieving world. Concerning the application of both ἄδικοι [adikoi; "unrighteous ones"] and δίκαιοι [dikaioi; "righteous ones"] to Christians, remember that, “because the notion that Jesus Christ ‘came not to call the just, but sinners,’ was so firmly rooted in the Gospel tradition, it became necessary at times for NT writers to characterize the redeemed as ‘unjust’ or ‘sinners’ before God in order to highlight their new status as ‘just’ or ‘righteous’” (Michaels, 1 Peter, 202—203). In this sense, Peter’s readers are called to suffer in order to lead the world to God before he pours out his judgment on all who are doers of evil, just as Christ suffered in order to lead those who believe to God. 

Both Christ's and the community's suffering, then, serve two functions: (i) proclamation, which is achieved when the suffering is for righteousness’ sake and not as a consequence of evil action; and (ii) vindication, which comes after suffering. To miss one point or the other will affect the interpretation of the difficult verse which follows. The suffering of the people of God for the gospel of Jesus Christ serves a similar function as the suffering of Christ; Christ’s suffering functions as a metaphor for the community’s current experiences of suffering. But, more importantly, suffering for righteousness identifies followers of Christ with the One whom they follow.

Notice that Peter never says that Jesus went to the prison; rather, Jesus "went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison"; in the spirit of the NASB, I translate the ἐν φυλακῇ [en phylakē; "in prison"], along with the participle πορευθεὶς [poreutheis; "he went," or "going"], as "he went to the spirits now in prison. They were not necessarily imprisoned when Jesus preached to them. “Although [Noah’s contemporaries] were not then in any physical prison, they have been confined after their death — they are spirits now in prison” (Skilton, "Old Problems," 6).

Peter also describes the spirits to whom Jesus preached as “those who were disobedient when the patience of God was waiting in the days of Noah during the construction of the ark” (3.20). ἀπειθήσασίν [apeithēsasin; "were disobedient"] functions as a temporal circumstantial participle (“when they were disobedient”), rather than an adjectival participle (“those who were disobedient”). “The participle here does not look at all like an attributive or substantive participle, but it looks for all the world like an adverbial participle” (Skilton, "Old Problems," 1–2). Moreover, ὅτε [hote; "when"] suggests a temporal function. Therefore, when we ask, Who are these spirits to whom Jesus made proclamation? the answer is clear: They are those who were disobedient during the construction of the ark. Here Peter draws upon the image of Noah experiencing the same type of opposition which the community is experiencing now. Whether Peter is referring to supernatural spirits who were disobedient (cf. Gen. 6.1–5, 1 Enoch) or human beings who heard the message of God’s judgment and grace (cf. 2 Pet. 2.5) and mocked Noah’s boat-building enterprise is the subject of much debate, and the text itself does not necessarily suggest one over the other.

If we understand τοῖς ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν [tois en phylakē pneumasin; "to the spirits (now?) in prison") as human agents who were given (and rejected) the chance for repentance upon hearing the proclamation made by Christ [ἐν] πνεὐματι [(in) the S/spirit; cf. 3.18], we need to ask when Peter understood that proclamation to have occurred. Was it while they were spirits in prison, or are they spirits in prison because they did not heed the preaching made to them? We would opt for the latter choice on the basis of the image Peter paints of the spirits’ disobedience “during the construction of the ark”. As Noah built his big boat on the side of an arid mountain, his actions and his preaching (again, cf. 2 Pet. 2.5) proclaimed the coming judgment of God against an evil world.
At some length — 120 years? — it began to rain, and Noah, ridiculed for so long on account of the ark he was building, was the only one prepared to endure God’s judgment. Of course, Noah was prepared for God’s judgment only because God, in his mercy, had provided for him a way of escape. And Noah, in his faithfulness to God, took that way despite the opposition that his faith-in-action drew. In this way, we avoid the incoherent conclusion of Jesus proclaiming the gospel to people who rejected God during their lifetimes. This view is also distinct from the one that sees Peter portraying Jesus as a second Enoch proclaiming his victory — without an option for salvation — to those “sons of God” who were the height of evil and motivated God to deluge his creation.

This explains perfectly the reference to baptism, ὃ καὶ ὑμᾶς . . . νῦν σῴζει [ho kai hymas . . . nyn sōzei], "which now even/also saves you" (3.21). That 1 Peter is a baptismal paranaesis has been widely accepted (cf. 1.22). Here Peter makes the point that baptism, as an example of faith-in-action that incurs opposition from those outside the community, can be understood in precisely the same terms of Noah's ark-building, another example of faith-in-action that brought about opposition. But baptism — just like Noah's ark — does not only bring opposition; it is also the vehicle through which (a) God proclaims his mercy to the world and (b) God vindicates those who suffer for his sake. Noah was saved by the ark; the Anatolian Christians to whom Peter writes will be saved through baptism (again, νῦν σῴζει; nyn sōzei).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Verily Verily 2.0

After nearly three years, I've decided to try to get back to the online discussion. If you remember the old Verily Verily, you'll notice there's a new look and a few new features. I'm still not steadfast enough to promise regular posting. But I hope to incorporate Verily Verily into my classroom discussions, and that should provide the motivation to keep this site updated. If you have any suggestions or ideas, feel free to leave me a comment.

My Visual Bookshelf