As we have just passed through Holy Week, we reflect on one of the strangest juxtapositions of events a person could encounter. A Jewish carpenter turned preacher goes from being hailed as the next king to being brutally tortured and executed in the span of five days. Then, completely against the normal way things are supposed to happen, the tragedy becomes a celebration when that apparent victim returned to life triumphant. That’s not just the “good news” the church is called to preach, but also what it is called to live.
Another Christmas is upon us. Christmas carols are playing on radio stations, the decorations are sparkling and the shopping season is winding down. The first Christmas, of course, wasn’t anything like this: there were not any of the decorations and the merchants certainly had not been anticipating the day. On the first Christmas, the people went about their business oblivious, not recognizing the Christ. Decorations aside, is that really any different today?
This December has been one of being still for me. As much as I wanted to go to all the parties, the concerts, the light shows and all of the other celebrations of the season, it just was not meant to be. This scourge of a cold bug that my family passed back and forth, and which seems to have left half the population around here coughing, hacking and sneezing through the season, has turned into a gift. Looking back on it, I have probably observed more “Christmas” this year than other years in recent memory.
As we enter the season where we anticipate Christ's birth, it is natural for us to contemplate the spiritual dimension of life. As you think about what it means to stand between the physical and spiritual, you won't understand it. That's okay; I don't either.
The American culture has a tendency to gravitate towards charismatic personalities. For all of the foundational principles of the separation of powers in the U.S. government, we have a bad habit of essentially handing over power to one party and then scratching our collective head when things go wrong. The same, unfortunately, is true in churches. The problem is the problem of monoculture.
It may be that all of us have “hot buttons” – things we sometimes hear other people say that irritate us or even enrage us. A hot button for professors of religion (or at least for me) is to hear someone juxtapose the word “Christian” and the word “Catholic.”
Jesus is how we say it in English, filtered through Greek and Latin. In Hebrew it's closer to Joshua. Same with the title Christ; it was Messiah. In any other language, whatever He is commonly called, none of it matters if He isn't living in the one who carries His name.
Up until a few short weeks ago, the name Terry Jones would have garnered blank stares from most quarters. Now, his back and forth plans to burn the Qur’an have elevated the obscure pastor into the most talked about clergyman of the season. Whether or not this burning or others like it actually proceed, those of us who claim to follow Christ must grapple with what people like Jones bring to the image of the Church and the Gospel.
We might wonder, if it mattered so much, why Paul did not more pointedly address the huge difference between the intellectual culture of the Bible against the rest of the world. His choice not to spend too much time teaching the cultural background of Christian faith in his letters was no doubt the best choice at the time. He wasn't writing to scholars. It's quite likely he did go into detail with some of his better students, like Timothy. Apollos clearly understood it, if we accept him as the author of Hebrews, for he rejects the Alexandrian content, but uses the Alexandrian style of presentation. Still, for us to ignore how thoroughly Christian teaching assumes a radically different orientation in thought would be thoughtless.
As a historian, I know what we call today “Western Civilization” was largely based on Christianity. I also know that it was a particular brand of Christianity. I leave for another day the debate whether that particular brand is now, or was then, the true Church. However, it is no criticism to note the Church of Rome which midwifed Western Civilization had not precisely the same outlook on the world as the New Testament Apostles. That is, the Apostles were Jewish men with a distinctly Semitic outlook, and Rome was decidedly Latin-Greek. Specifically, it was Aristotelian.