Monday, November 30, 2009

lost in translation

Whoa. It’s been four weeks since I posted. It’s been a crazy few weeks, I think maybe I needed to clear my head a bit of a few things…and not on the worldwideweb. Sorry to be absent, gang, but come on: I haven’t missed too many since starting this back in ’06, eh?

I’ve really enjoyed working through part one of The Jesus Underground series we just finished. I’ve notice in myself a bit of danger while studying our way through the book of Acts. It’s easy to slip into some wistful, idyllic picture of the early Church, especially the first few chapters. While we love the miracles, the big “come-to-Jesus” moments, and the apparent depth of community, we can miss what’s between the lines: the messiness, the confusion, the persecution and pain.

Can you imagine these first Jewish believers in Acts 2 wondering how they fit into Temple worship and what to do about required sacrifices? What are the polity, governance and configuration elements of this movement? Remember, no New Testament letter existed yet; their theology was being formed by their experience…and whatever they could interpret from the law and the prophets that shed light on this new covenant. What was the discipleship structure for understanding this remarkable covenant? Should, or could, Gentiles ever be a part of this movement? And on and on and on.

Think how complicated—and risky—this all would have been. No wonder Gnosticism and various squirrelly theologies slipped in quickly.

And then Paul comes into the picture.

I tire of critics taking potshots at Paul and his supposed “reshaping of Jesus’ message”. Sometimes, people pit Paul’s letters against the less “legalistic” love-ethic of Jesus. But I can’t even imagine what Christianity, let alone the early Church, would have done without his clear-headed and revelatory insight into this strange and unarticulated new covenant. There are precious few verses in the prophets regarding the details and nature of this next covenant (there is far more about “the day of the Lord” which is sometimes interpreted as the same). The only place that even uses the specific language of “new covenant” is in Jeremiah 31 with God spelling out but a few basics: the forgiveness of sins, an individualized actualized deep knowledge of Him, and a new spirit concordant with the law and heart of God. Yes, Paul’s writing requires thoughtful and contextual understanding, but I don’t see a dichotomy with the Kingdom language of Jesus or the mysterious foreshadows and types within the Old Testament.

Somewhat sweetly, the apostle Peter put it like this:

This is just as our beloved brother Paul wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters around to mean something quite different from what he meant, just as they do the other parts of Scripture—and the result is disaster for them. (2 Peter 3:15b–16)

Even more so, taking into account what Luke recorded of the encounter pre-conversion Saul/Paul had with Jesus, it’s Jesus who calls a believer named Ananias to pray for Paul who was walking around in the dark, blinded by the light. In a vision, Jesus tells Ananias that Paul has been hand-picked to carry the Kingdom message to the Gentiles…and via some kick-butt suffering. Years later, Paul becomes the first real theologian of the Jesus Underground movement. Reading his letters is like, as historian Thomas Cahill writes, “watching original theology in the making.” Pretty amazing when you think about what he did.

When we say the word theologian, we tend to think of a bookish-kind of guy with glasses and a corduroy sport coat with patches on the elbows. But Paul was certainly not that.

• Think of a Jewish Shia LaBoef (uh, actually, he is Jewish) who’s constantly getting attacked, who once escaped some bounty hunters over a city wall at night in a basket lowered by ropes.
• Think of a guy who almost gets torn apart because his preaching about Jesus is so compelling that the idol-making trade union riots in Ephesus because of a Kingdom-driven recession.
• Three times he narrowly survives a shipwreck.
• Imprisoned multiple times.
• Five times he was flogged with thirty-nine lashes.
• Three times he is beaten with a cane.
• Once he survived a stoning…barely.
• Traveled all over the Mideast, Asia and Europe…pre Megabus days when it was extremely dangerous.
• Often going without food, left in prisons cold and naked for months.
• While calling himself the “chief sinner” (probably because of being a widow-maker pre-conversion), he humbly writes that he now has a “clear conscience”. Wow. Now that’s a deep understanding of forgiveness and grace.

Let me ask you: what do you think Paul would think of American Christianity? And what would you think of a guy who by his own admission was not much to look at and not very impressive in person? And this is the man who says to the people he’s mentoring: fight a worthy fight…a good fight. I’d say to the Paul-bashers: walk a mile in his sandals.

And I think that’s why I’m going to so enjoy Part 2 of The Jesus Underground in January with the fantastic adventures of Paul.

He’s my hero. Complicated, but he's the man.


  1. With out the books by Paul in the scriptures, I would think the Christian movement would have eventually went in another direction or never grew to what it is today.

    Now this is comming from some one that thought his writings were a bit boring at first. After careful study and research, I have found his works to be a highly vital part of the New Testament filled with essential guidlines in serving the Lord back then and today.

    Although Jesus mentioned the Gentiles in His future church, It was Paul that really integrated them into the Christian movement with his writings and sermons.

  2. What bothers me, .... as just a guy that's new to this whole loving Jesus thing, ... is how church culture can so easily breed groups: the in-crowd vs. the out-crowd.

    As someone who lived the "in-crowd life" in abundance while not pursuing Jesus, ... I seem to be drawn to those who feel like they are on the outside looking in, ... and I'm looking at those "in-crowd church folk" like others may have looked at me in the past.

  3. Yeah, I think you're right, Michael. And it's nothing new; Paul identified it in Corinth:

    I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 1 Corinthians 1:10-12 (TNIV)

    Christians can "circle the wagons" as fast as anyone. I know--I have the same tendencies. I like what Lewis wrote in "The Weight of Glory", a reminder of what human beings potentially are. It helps break down the subtle pride that can slip into either camp:

    “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations-these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours...Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

  4. I think most of the arguments focus around paul's writings, which are mostly confusing. Do not find them any more straight forward then revelations.

    I can read the gospels over and over, but I get down right bored with Paul's writings.

    Then their are some writings that he put out that we do not even follow today.

    Peter was right he is confusing and need a PHD in divinity to get what the guy was saying. Why is this man's writings so cryptic?

  5. It definitely helps to have a good bit of the Old Testament under your belt. I would also encourage a commentary for context. You might start off with Philippians as a great entry into Paul's world and heart.