Satellite’s Gone

Let’s talk about satellite campuses for a moment. Within evangelicalism, the satellite campus model is a way of structuring a local church’s membership across several campuses, typically locally. It’s similar to the episcopal model of church polity. For episcopal church governance, a certain area is governed by a bishop, and individual church bodies (specifically, the clergy) within that area answer to the bishop. By way of example, episcopal churches include the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches; the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches; and the Methodists. Quite a rich tradition.

Churches with satellite campuses have a few obvious similarities to the episcopal model, but they also depart radically. In terms of their shared features, episcopal churches and satellite churches both function essentially under the authority of one figure: the local bishop or the lead pastor(-ate) of the “main campus.” (In my experience, the most typical church to embrace the satellite campus model is the non-denominational, “baptist-lite”[1] church, in which the authority of the congregation or the elder board are either entirely or substantially subsumed into the single person of the “lead pastor” [or, perhaps, “pastoral team”], who functions as a bishop. This has its own, serious problems.) The other “campus pastors” within the satellite model function more or less as “parish priests,” and they are tasked with administrating campus events, such as Sunday worship, Wednesday church, etc. The campus pastor/parish priest is accountable to the lead pastor/bishop.

Satellite campuses, nevertheless, diverge from the episcopal tradition, and in my estimation these divergences are quite damning to the satellite campus model, particularly in its worse manifestations.

The most significant departure has two facets, but it can be summarized as a loss of congregational autonomy. These two facets are integrally linked though distinguishable. First, the lead pastor exercises a higher degree of functional ruling on day-to-day affairs than a bishop ordinarily (and in terms of best practice) would. This is the case simply by virtue of the organizational distinction (or lack thereof) between a main campus and its satellite.

Second, the satellite campus does not exist as an independent body. “Independence” ought not be understood in either a strict or an absolute sense. Rather, think of it in terms of freedom of direction. The worse examples of the satellite model display congregational dependence most clearly. Satellite models frequently have campus pastors, who “serve at the pleasure of the lead pastor,” to mangle the phrase. Campus pastors are, therefore, often bound to the “vision” set by their lead pastor or pastoral team. At its most grotesque, campus pastors lack the freedom to genuinely preach to their congregation, relying instead on a simulcast (or even recording) of the main campus’s/lead pastor’s sermon. Ironically, commodifying the preached word in this manner devalues it.

Satellite campuses at first glance share a great deal in common with church plants. Nevertheless, whereas church plants are (hopefully) begun with the goal of eventually functioning as an independent, autonomous church body (howsoever defined per political [i.e., “of polity”] model), the satellite campus is by its nature not privy to that end. The satellite campus more often than not exists as a brand extension into a new locale. The main body is furcated into a number of different bodies, each of which the church hopes will grow, but none of which are expected to become independent.

Members of satellite campuses are shortchanged by the model. Insofar as these campuses function true to form, members are left with either a campus pastor handcuffed to the main campus or a simulcasted presentation of a sermon. By a minimalist definition of “church,” in which a church is constituted by the administration of (1) word and (2) sacrament, the satellite campus model denies its members a fully-flourishing “church.” Again, this denial can most clearly be seen in its worse instantiations. A simulcasted sermon is not a sermon. (Axiomatic, I know, but I will stand by this. Perhaps fleshing out to come.) And, less worse though still condemnable, a campus pastor who does not have the freedom to preach that which this church body needs–rather than that which that church body needs–cannot totally “preach the word.” He’s hamstrung.

I don’t want to suggest that there’s nothing positive to the model. Yet, the satellite campus model fundamentally misconceives the church. Again, there are better and worse examples–healthier and unhealthier. Nevertheless, satellite campuses are healthier when they are treated more as semi-autonomous-lurching-toward-autonomy than as functionally dependent, derivative bodies.

[1] I have my friend Daniel Drylie to thank for that phrase.


The Realsymbol and the Very Presence: Reviewing Being Salvation (2017)

9781506423326_0Karl Rahner is inscrutable. Like all the midcentury Germans, reading him is equivalent to walking through muddy pit. As fast as you’d like to go, you can go no faster than the prose will allow, and Rahner’s infamous multi-clause paragraphic sentences force you to take your time. This would be fine and dandy on its own. Unfortunately, Rahner makes extensive use of terminology born in the continental philosophy of Heidegger and Friends, which forces even the most voracious readers of philosophy and theology to take their time reading him.

All of which makes Brandon Peterson’s Being Salvation: Atonement and Soteriology in the Theology of Karl Rahner such a delight. Peterson writes with such clarity and depth of insight that you may even begin to doubt your facility with the English language. How could you miss these features? Or, how is Peterson able to so simply spell them out? The infamously opaque Rahner is opened up, and prominent contours of his project are distilled.

One often neglected aspect of Rahner’s work that Peterson draws out is Rahner’s absolute reliance on the Jesuit tradition. Frequently misrepresented as a baptizer of philosophical discourse, Rahner was in truth deeply committed to Ignatian spirituality, and Peterson demonstrates the centrality of this spirituality quite adequately–not merely as a stand-alone trivium but as an explanatory characteristic of Rahner’s work in toto.

Being Salvation is concerned chiefly with Rahner’s take on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. To get there, Peterson establishes the fundamental importance of Ignatian spirituality and disentangles Rahner’s notion of “Realsymbole” (symbolic realities) from our vernacular use of “symbol” as well as the more theologically-oriented notion of “Vertretungssymbole” (symbolic representations). Whereas the one is an intrinsic, self-expressive mediation of one’s “very presence,” the other is extrinsic and arbitrary. In understanding the Logos as the Realsymbol of the Father, Rahner understands Jesus not merely as a happenstance revelation of the Father but the “very presence” of god among people; there could be no other mediation, in other words.

One interesting extension of this argument, which Rahner makes, is that inasmuch as the Father’s Realsymbol is the Logos, the Logos’s Realsymbol is the Church, and the Church’s Realsymbole are the sacraments–baptism, communion, marriage, etc. These each mediate the “very presence” of their realsymbolisch counterpart. Of course, such line of argumentation may very well be the reason this work is warranted, as Protestants tend to accuse Rahner of understanding the Logos as a “mere symbol” of god rather than a “symbolic reality,” the distinction between which is blurred in part thanks to Protestant conceptions of the symbolic nature of the communion elements.

Nevertheless, that Jesus mediates the very presence of god on earth is central to Rahner’s soteriological account. Rahner rejects substitutionary models of atonement/salvation in favor of representative models, which he developed from his work in the patristics. Borrowing extensively from Irenaeus (specifically, his account of recapitulation), Rahner works from three basic principles to articulate his representative soteriology:

  1. Christ represents his people to god. Corollary:  we reciprocate through participation in Christ. The account Rahner gives seems to suggest that all people are god’s people; such would be an interesting concept.
  2. Christ represents god to the world. He does this through two mechanisms:
    • Eternal mediation–in Rahner’s words, “The ‘heaven’ to which the saved attain is not a pre-existing place or even state, but a reality which comes into being with Christ’s own resurrection, for he is himself salvation’s content, god made present to creation.” The Logos is and has always been the Realsymbol of the Father, and as such is “god made present to creation.”
    • Basileia–Jesus Christ is the manifestation, instantiation, ground, potentiality, and actuality of god’s kingdom on earth. There is no other realm for it; it exists purely in and through the Messiah.
  3. Salvation exists constitutively (rather than merely normatively) in the person of Jesus. Without Jesus, there can be no salvation. Jesus as the mediation of the “very presence” of god serves as the only possible means through which god’s presence could be manifest in the world, which is to say salvation.

Rahner’s corpus is certainly not an easy one to tackle. Peterson’s Being Salvation, however, provides a helpful scaffolding for students. Peterson dismisses Balthasar’s critiques of Rahner and, over the course of the book, illuminates some of the more difficult aspects of Rahner’s thought. I look forward to jumping back into Rahner’s work with Being Salvation under my belt.

I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Body Parts (2017)

9781506418568Michelle Voss Roberts published Body Parts: a Theological Anthropology through Fortress Press in 2017. In sum, the work is an attempt at integrating anthropological insights from non-dual Shaivism, a variant of Hinduism, into the broader Christian anthropological schema (23). That is to say, Roberts wants to incorporate the illuminative aspects of non-dual Shaivism to correct or strengthen the traditional imago dei model in Christian theology. The inherited model for most Christians (via Aquinas, et al) is an association of the imago with that which separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom–viz., rationality.[1] Human rationality, in other words, is the foundation upon which the imago dei is erected. Roberts disagrees, instead pointing toward a model in which the imago consists in the web of attributes belonging to humanity–but not to humanity in particular. (14)

Dysfunctional views of the imago motivate Roberts’s project. She outlines three key models and their limitations: (1) substance anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of a capacity; (2) functional anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of what we do; and (3) relational anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of our interdependence.

I am sympathetic to Roberts’s concerns. The disabled are excluded from traditional accounts of the imago, simply because their grasp on the sine qua non of “human” flourishing is so slight. I’m reminded of the problem in ethics, popularized by Peter Singer, of what to do with the perpetually comatose patient. What account of the human protects this sort of person (or persons like her), who lack a working, rational brain or who cannot perform a task or who do not relate to those around her? How do you affirm the inherent worth of individuals irrespective of their usefulness? Roberts’s chapter on “The Limited Body” touches on these issues well, though imperfectly. (The reinterpretation of original sin — the conditions within which we “overreach” our limits or fail to grasp our own finitude — is interesting, though certainly unorthodox.)

Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of the work concerns the incorporation of non-dual Shaivism into the Christian schema. In that respect, despite my fundamental agreement with Roberts on the inadequacy of the traditional model of the imago, I did not find her imaginative reworking compelling. There seem to be more fruitful avenues of exploration than Abhinavagupta’s “body parts”–the philosophical discourse on “dignity,” for one. Roberts should be lauded for the attempt. Putting these two widely divergent traditions in conversation was certainly an enticing read, but the result was not as illuminative as I had hoped. However, Roberts’s concern to include the disabled and the excluded in her account of the imago should characterize any future models of the doctrine.

[1] To be sure, grounding a human’s value in something can be an arduous task. Remy Debes, my former professor, outlines some of the philosophical problematics of “dignity” (a related, though distinguished, concept to the imago) in his 2009 article “Dignity’s Gauntlet,” which you can read here. I remember asking Dr. D about this article in his office as I was just beginning my philosophical training. He was (and still is) very generous with his time for his students and former students, and he has had a profound influence on my understanding of the art of teaching. “You are all philosophers,” indeed.

I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.

The Attender is Always Right, and Other Myths: Reviewing the Come Back Effect (2018)

9781493414109Young and Malm (“YM”) in The Come Back Effect seek to make a church’s visitors feel welcomed, loved, and at ease. They offer suggestions that can promote the hospitable atmosphere the church ought to inculcate in her weekly gatherings.

YM’s distinction between “service” and “hospitality” is duly noted. We can be like Martha, so wrapped up in serving our guest that we neglect to be with them (20). Second, their point that you need to budget for hospitality if you claim to be hospitable is fair enough (45). Finally, focusing on “values” for your team rather than on policies allows greater freedom to achieve your desired ends, especially hospitality (146).

Nevertheless, the book suffers from fundamental misconceptions of the church and her purpose. As helpful as their practical tips and tricks can be, they are rooted in a perspective that misunderstands and prostitutes the church. The Come Back Effect is a case study in the interrelationship between bad theory and bad practice.

I have no desire to rehash arguments made by the discernment trolls from underneath their bridges, but they rightly point out serious flaws in the “seeker-sensitive” ecclesiological model, of which Andy Stanley is a chief example. YM’s relationship to Stanley litters the pages of this book, and his influence is clear. Such deference is made to the “seeker,” the guest, and the customer that one quickly forgets for whom the church was instituted. (Yes, your Sunday School answer is appropriate here:  the church is for Jesus.)

Sunday worship ought to discomfit an unbeliever. Such unease comes not from being unwelcome[1] but from the stark discrepancy between members of god’s kingdom and members of the anti-kingdom. The hospitality in this book goes beyond being hospitable to selling the experience of the church, which turns worship into a commodity and the elements into grotesqueries to be hidden away. The supernatural strangeness of the Christian body is swept under the rug, hidden behind baskets of breath mints and clever branding. A church more concerned with appealing to visitors than extolling Jesus Christ will not remain a church for long. It may retain its facilities and its membership, but the sine qua non of the church–the unadulterated worship of Jesus–will be understated again and again, for the sake of relevance. At what point does a church decide it will pander no further? The Come Back Effect is so steeped in marketing and the hospitality industry’s understanding of hospitality-as-sales that the consideration is not even raised; in this respect, its frequent callouts to business-owners is unsurprising.

The Come Back Effect could use a robustly theological account of the church. Its helpfulness is undone by this lack.

[1] Although, now that I write this, perhaps it is; perhaps the unbeliever ought to feel unwelcome in a house of worship, when they do not worship its god. We ought not be surly to strangers, but there’s no reason to suppose that gathering for Sunday worship is geared toward those who do not worship.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

The Priest, the Dog, and the Silent God: Selections from Shūsaku Endō’s Silence

I watched Martin Scorsese’s take on Shūsaku Endō’s Silence a few weeks ago, and I immediately checked the book out from the library to read the source material. It’s as moving as the cinematic version. This was my first exposure to Endō. His is certainly an expressive style of writing–terse, action-oriented but deep in the narrator’s psyche, overwhelmingly religious (unsurprising, considering the narrator).

The following are a few selections from the book. I won’t waste many words contextualizing the scenes. They speak for themselves.

First, Rodrigues has been imprisoned but has come face to face again with his thorn in the flesh. Kichijirō, who helped ferry Rodrigues and Garrpe from Macao to Japan, had apostatized in the past, when the persecution broke out in earnest, only to return and to repent and then to apostatize again, betraying Rodrigues to the magistrate, who has imprisoned Rodrigues:

When the man looked toward the priest, their eyes met. It was Kichijirō. For a moment a spasm of fear cross that face and Kichijirō retreated backwards a few steps.

‘Father!’ His voice was like the whining of a dog. ‘Father! Listen to me!’

The priest withdrew his face from the window and tried to block his ears against the sound of that voice. How could he ever forget the dried fish, the burning thirst in his throat. Even if he tried to forgive the fellow, he could not drive from his memory the hatred and anger that lurked there.

‘Father! father!’ The entreating voice continued like that of a child pleading with its mother.

‘Won’t you listen to me, father! I’ve kept deceiving you. Since you rebuked me I began to hate you and all the Christians. Yes, it is true that I trod on the holy image. Mokichi and Ichizo were strong. I can’t be strong like them.’

… The priest closed his eyes and began to recite the Credo. He felt a sense of joy in being able to abandon this whimpering fellow in the rain. Even though Christ prayed, Judas hanged himself in the field of blood–and had Christ prayed for Judas? There was nothing about that in the Scriptures; and even if there was, he could not put himself into such a frame of mind as to be able to do likewise. In any case, to what extent could the fellow be trusted? He was looking for pardon; but this perhaps was no more than a passing moment of excitement.

… ‘Father, father!’ Seeing that the priest had come to the prison, Kichijirō was again pleading in the darkness. ‘Let me confess my sins and repent!’

The priest had no right to refuse the sacrament of penance to anyone. If a person asked for the sacrament, it was not for him to concede or refuse according to his own feelings. He raised his hand in blessing, uttered dutifully the prescribed prayer and put his ear close to the other. As the foul breath was wafted into his face, there in the darkness the vision of the yellow teeth and the crafty look floated before his eyes.

‘Listen to me, father,’ Kichijirō whimpered in a voice that the other Christians could hear. ‘I am an apostate, but if I had died ten years ago I might have gone to paradise as a good Christian, not despised as an apostate. Merely because I live in a time of persecution . . . I am sorry.’

‘But do you still believe?’, asked the priest, doing his best to put up with the foul stench of the other’s breath. ‘I will give you absolution, but I cannot trust you. I cannot understand why you have come here.’

Heaving a deep sigh and searching for words of explanation, Kichijirō shifted and shuffled. The stench of his filth and sweat was wafted toward the priest. Could it be possible that Christ loved and searched after this dirtiest of men? In evil there remained that strength and beauty of evil; but this Kichijirō was not even worthy to be called evil. He was thin and dirty like the tattered rags he wore. Suppressing his disgust, the priest recited the final words of absolution, and then, following the established custom, he whispered, ‘Go in peace.’ With all possible speed getting away from the stench of that mouth and that body, he returned to where the Christians were.

No, no. Our Lord had searched out the ragged and the dirty. Thus he reflected as he lay in bed. Among the people who appeared in the pages of the Scripture, those whom Christ had searched after in love were the woman of Capharnaum with the issue of blood, the woman taken in adultery whom men had wanted to stone–people with no attraction, no beauty. Anyone could be attracted by the beautiful and the charming. But could such attraction be called love? True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters. Theoretically the priest knew all this; but still he could not forgive Kichijirō. Once again near his face came the face of Christ, wet with tears. When the gentle eyes looked straight into his, the priest was filled with shame.[1]

Second, in the immediate wake of Kichijirō again apostatizing and the martyrdom of a Christian prisoner. Rodrigues is stunned by the silent stillness of god after these events:

The white rays of the sun beat down dazzlingly on the open courtyard. Beneath its merciless rays there lay on the ground the black dye which was the blood from the body of the one-eyed man.

Just as before, the cicadas kept on singing their song, dry and hoarse. There was not a breath of wind. Just as before, a fly kept buzzing around the priest’s face. In the world outside there was no change. A man had died; but there was no change.

‘So it has come to this. . . .’ He shivered as he clutched the bars. ‘So it has come to this. . . .’

Yet his perplexity did not come from the event that had happened so suddenly. What he could not understand was the stillness of the courtyard, the voice of the cicadas, the whirling wings of the flies. A man had died. Yet the outside world went on as if nothing had happened. Could anything be more crazy? Was this martyrdom? Why are you silent? Here this one-eyed man has died–and for you. You ought to know. Why does this stillness continue? This noonday stillness. The sound of the flies–this crazy thing, this cruel business. And you avert your face as though indifferent. This . . . this I cannot bear.

Kyrie Eleison! Lord, have mercy! His trembling lips moved a while in prayer, but the words faded from his lips. Lord, do not abandon me anymore! Do not abandon me in this mysterious way. Is this prayer? For a long time I have believed that prayer is uttered to praise and glorify you; but when I speak to you it seems as though I only blaspheme. On the day of my death, too, will the world go relentlessly on its way, indifferent just as now? After I am murdered, will the cicadas sing and the flies whirl their wings inducing sleep? Do I want to be as heroic as that? And yet, am I looking for the true, hidden martyrdom or just for a glorious death? Is it that I want to be honored, to be prayed to, to be called a saint?

Third, Rodrigues has now found the apostate priest whom he went to Japan in search of. Ferreira convinces Rodrigues to commit the “formality” of apostasy, to step on the fumie, in order to show mercy and love to the suffering prisoners near them. On their way to the fumie,

‘You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,’ said Ferreira, taking the priest gently by the shoulder.

Swaying as he walked, the priest dragged his feet along the corridor. Step by step he made his way forward, as if his legs were bound by heavy leaden chains–and Ferreira guided him along. In the gentle light of the morning, the corridor seemed endless; but there at the end stood the interpreter and two guards, looking just like three black dolls.

‘Sawano, is it over? Shall we get out the fumie?’ As he spoke the interpreter put on the ground the box he was carrying and, opening it, he took out a large wooden plaque.

‘Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.’ Ferreira repeated his former words gently. ‘Your brethren in the Church will judge you as they have judged me. But there is something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work: what you are now about to do.’

The fumie is now at his feet.

A simple copper medal is fixed on to a grey plank of dirty wood on which the grains run like little waves. Before him is the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms. Eyes dimmed and confused the priest silently looks down at the face which he now meets for the first time since coming to this country.

‘Ah,’ says Ferreira. ‘Courage!’

‘Lord, since long, long ago, innumerable times I have thought of your face. Especially since coming to this country have I done so tens of times. When I was in hiding in the mountains of Tomogi; when I crossed over in the little ship; when I wandered in the mountains; when I lay in prison at night . . . Whenever I prayed your face appeared before me; when I was alone I thought of your face imparting a blessing; when I was captured your face as it appeared when you carried your cross gave me life. This face is deeply ingrained in my soul–the most beautiful, the most precious thing in the world has been living in my heart. And now with this foot I am going to trample on it.’

The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long neck stretched out like a chicken and upon the bony shoulders. The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the center of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. ‘Ah,’ he says trembling, ‘the pain!’

‘It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?’ The interpreter urges him on excitedly. ‘Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.’

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.[3]

Finally, Rodrigues has been remanded to a house away from the people in Kobinatacho, to live as husband to a widowed woman. His thorn in the flesh appears yet again:

‘Father, I betrayed you. I trampled on the picture of Christ,’ said Kichijirō with tears. ‘In this world are the strong and the weak. The strong never yield to torture, and they go to Paradise; but what about those, like myself, who are born weak, those who, when tortured and ordered to trample on the sacred image . . .’

I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was on the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face that any man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. ‘Trample!’ said those compassionate eyes. ‘Trample! Your foot suffers in plain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.’

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’

‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

‘But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?’

‘I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you now are.’

He had lowered his foot on to the plaque, sticky with dirt and blood. His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment.

‘There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?’ The priest spoke rapidly, facing the entrance. ‘Since in this country there is now no one else to hear your confession, I will do it. . . . Say the prayers after confession. . . . Go in peace!’[4]

Both book and film are unnerving experiences. There’s a lot to think about here.

[1] Endō, Shūsaku. Silence. Trans. William Johnston (New York: Picador Modern Classics, 1969), 122-4.

[2] Ibid, 127-8.

[3] Ibid, 182-3.

[4] Ibid, 202-3.

Babel to Babylon: Tracing a Theme

From beginning to end, an important substratum of the biblical narrative is the kingdom of god. There are hints of this theme as early as Genesis 1, in which god is said to give the sun and the moon “to rule” the day and night, respectively (1.16-18). This “ruling” feature is baked into the cosmos, and its highest creaturely instantiation is the man and the woman, both of whom are created imago dei (1.27) and are created to “fill,” “subdue,” and “have dominion” (1.28) over the rest of creation–functioning particularly as the imago in these roles.

Revelation,[1] concluding the canon, echoes much of what precedes it, but it even goes so far as to mark a perfect fulfillment of what was begun in Eden. Now, perfect communion between humanity and god will never be lost, the sun and the moon will lose their function because of the refulgence of god, and the tree of life will stand and be partaken of (Rev. 21.22-22.5). In other words, what was the intention from the foundation will be brought to fruition at the end. And we see a greater unveiling: what awaits at the end of time is the kingdom of god in its fullness.

What one sees as you read through Scripture, however, is not that the kingdom of god advances unassailed but rather that it progresses through the cosmos at the expense of an alternative kingdom. At the very beginning, before creation commences in earnest, “the earth was without form and void,” tohu va bohuTohu, used throughout the Hebrew Bible to designate an emptiness, frequently if not exclusively connotes a condemnable lack; it’s not a neutral emptiness but a growthless wilderness (e.g., Deut. 32.10). More so, tohu is used in Is. 34.11 to describe the just deserts of the nations that rage against Israel. “Emptiness” as that upon which god begins his kingdom, “emptiness” as that which the pagan nations have earned–tohu is the kingdom of darkness over against which the kingdom of god advances. The association between this emptiness and the contrary kingdoms of the world is strong enough to note here. It is further strengthened in Jeremiah 51, the oracle against Babylon, in which the prophet explicitly recalls Yahweh’s creative work in the beginning (vs. 15ff) as he prophesies concerning Babylon’s imminent destruction into a perpetual waste (v. 26). We’ll return to this.

In the beginning, we are privy to a succinct history of the beginning. At the end of this primeval history, after the deluge, the author makes note of the peoples descended from the sons of Noah (Gen. 10). Ham, Noah’s youngest and most-shamed son, fathered a laundry list of Israel’s enemies, including Egypt and all of Canaan’s children: the Jebusites, Hivites, Sodom, Gomorrah, etc.[2]

800px-pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_the_tower_of_babel_28vienna29_-_google_art_project_-_editedSignificantly, however, one of Ham’s grandchildren, through Cush, is Nimrod, the mythic warrior, through whose loins came “Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh…” (10.10, 11). Nimrod fathers babel and, at the very least, draws ashur into greater strength by building Nineveh. In what is either incredible prophetic foretelling or incredible literary foreshadowing, the shamed son becomes responsible for the two greatest threats to the kingdom of god: Babylon and Assyria.

“Wait,” you say, “Babel isn’t Babylon.” We’ll come to this in a moment. For now, recall the story of Babel (Gen. 11); it concludes the primeval history of Genesis, with the very next piece of the narrative being Abram’s call. We could understand Genesis 1-11 as a paradigmatic history of the world in its aversion to god.[3] Whereas in Eden god had created the man and the woman to flourish within, spread across, and subdue the earth, at Babel men and women decided to congregate together “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4), and there built a ziggurat (Etemenanki, possibly) to challenge the god of heaven. Yahweh then “comes down” (v. 5) to Babel, apparently walking through the city as he did Eden, and “confuses” their language so that this kind of project could not again be attempted. Babel, then, functions as an antagonistic kingdom, one which contradicts the divine vision of expansion and fulfillment. Eden, created by god to expand past its initial boundaries and infuse all of creation with the divine presence and glory, is subverted by Babel with its desire to congregate and to “make a name” for itself.

babylon-fallenhdBabel is the primeval prototype of the anti-kingdom, the kingdom of darkness. This prototype finds a temporary realization in the literal kingdom of Babylon, however. Babylon is the existential threat to Israel. The people whom god chose for himself are crushed initially by the Assyrians (cp. Gen. 10.11, 2 Kings 15) and are nearly obliterated by the Babylonian horde a century or so later. The Babylonian invasion was the defining moment of Israel’s history for generations; Jeremiah 52 describes Babylon sacking Jerusalem and torching the Temple, thereby snuffing out the covenant, as it were. Whereas Babel closes out the primeval history, Babylon essentially closes out the kingdom history; from that point, Hebrew authors would write from exile.

The literary relationship between Babel and Babylon is quite strong. The exact same Hebrew term is used to speak of both kingdoms: בָּבֶל, babel. One reading the pertinent passages in the prophets will see babel, just as they would were they reading Genesis 10 and 11. It’s as though the ancient foe of god’s kingdom had been reinvigorated, finding new life by demonic power (Bel/Marduk, perhaps, cf. Jer. 51.44). And we have reason to believe that the reader ought to make this connection. The Babylonian empire has another name–the Chaldeans–and it is frequently referred to as such, but as often authors refer to them simply as babel. The explicit connection to the early anti-kingdom (rather than referring to them as “the Chaldeans”) draws the reader’s attention to the primeval history, to the paradigmatic antithesis, such that one should not confuse the Chaldeans as “just another empire” but as one which echoes the (end of the) beginning.

To further reinforce this relationship, note Babel’s location at the close of the primeval history, which itself is opened by the creative work of god. As Jeremiah conveys the oracle of god against Babylon, Israel is reminded again of god’s initial creative work in the beginning. In declaiming his own faithfulness to Israel, god “has sworn by himself” that Babylon will be overthrown (51.14). And in buttressing that oath, Yahweh points to the beginning: “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. … Not like [worthless idols] is he who is the portion of Jacob, for he is the one who formed all things, and Israel is the tribe of his inheritance; the Lord of hosts is his name” (51.15, 19). Remembering their god’s initial work over against “formlessness” and “Babel” allows Israel to hope in their current predicament, in the face of destruction and Babylon. He promises: “I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done in Zion, declares the Lord” (51.24). You can detect even a subtle hint in what follows of the anti-kingdom’s contradiction to the divine kingdom. Whereas god created all things in order that life would blossom, Babylon is called the “destroying mountain, declares the Lord, which destroys the whole earth” (51.25). The language of the early chapters of Genesis is borrowed again and again. More, Jeremiah 51 is alluded to extensively throughout Revelation, even insofar as the chapter references Genesis. We’ll look at this again shortly.

The people of Israel, taken captive by Babylon and living within Babel’s realm (under their political influence, within the reach of their gods), are then living shadows of the coming reality, wherein those belonging to the kingdom of Christ dwell as exiles (cf. 1 Peter 1.2 et al.) within a foreign kingdom. Exilic Israel even echoes Abram, who was called “from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” (Gen. 12.1); he was drawn out of, coincidentally, “Ur of the Chaldeans” (11.28, 31). Chaldea and Babel and Babylon litter the pages of the Hebrew scriptures in unexpected places.

Such is, in any event, the thrust of the theme in the Old Testament. Babel, the primeval prototype, reëmerges in the contemporary foe, babel, Babylon. Were this the extent of the theme and there no continuation or intensification in the New Testament, it would be incredible enough. Amazingly, the Babel/Babylon thread is picked up again, particularly in the book of Revelation.

herrad_von_landsberg_whore_babylonIt’s far too easy to be distracted by the extravagant imagery of the Revelation, losing sight of the crux of the book; the culmination of history is the reinstitution, consummation, and perfection of what was lost in Eden: god dwelling with his people as their god, and the realm of god encompassing the universe. The climax of the Revelation is the triune godhead with the New Jerusalem descending to earth and the boundaries of this temple-city expanding to an unbelievable size. With that in mind, understanding that the New Jerusalem is the protagonist (or, the emblem of the protagonist), we do well to recall that the kingdom of god does not conquer a blank canvas. The antagonist (or its emblem) is “Babylon the Great” (Rev. 14.8), which kingdom the author associates with “the Beast” of Revelation (Rev. 14.8,9; cp. Rev. 16.10) and with the “prostitute” (Rev. 17.3, 18).

The reference in Revelation 17.18, in which “Babylon” is associated with “dominion over the kings of the earth,” makes those anabaptist strings in my heart hum. Regardless, it’s enlightening, because it indicates that the Babylon of Revelation cannot neatly be associated with a single kingdom or empire; it rather stands for some extraneous force, some spiritual power, which stands behind political maneuvering. This represents, to be sure, a significant expansion of the Babylonian idea in Scripture. Whereas it could be questioned from the prophetic literature whether Babylon was motivated by some demonic force (e.g., Jer. 51.44), the questioned is firmly resolved in the Revelation by virtue of Babylon’s association with the Beast (Rev. 14).

Recall again the association between babel and the creation epoch, acting as a bookend to that period, and between babel and the “creating god’s” judgment (Jer. 51.15ff). This theme is continued into Revelation. In Revelation 14.6-13, we read a number of angels or messengers of god proclaiming “an eternal gospel” (v. 6) to people on the earth, and this gospel begins, “Fear God and give him glory …, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (v. 7). The “creating god” has been referenced once again. Once again, on its heels is a reference to Babylon: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great,” a phrase which will be repeated in Revelation 18. Tying Babylon’s judgment to the creative judge from the beginning is a consistent feature of Babylon’s appearance in the text. It’s as though the only adequate persona for the judgement of this antagonist must be the one who has existed from the beginning. Whether that is because the invigorating force has existed from the beginning or that is because the danger’s so great is unclear. Regardless, the hope proffered to Israel in the Hebrew scripture and to the church in the New Testament is that the god who was there before there was is the selfsame god who will cast down Bel, Marduk, the Dragon, HaSatan.

The Revelation echoes the Isaian oracle (Is. 21.9), exulting twice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (14.7, 18.2) Revelation 18 has a lot of interesting facets, but I want to draw your attention to just a few for the time being.

First, Babylon is identified with “all nations” and “the kings of the earth” (v. 3), both of whom represent traditional modes of power: fielding an army, exercising authority, enforcing law, etc. However, Babylon is also associated with “the merchants of the earth,” who “have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (v. 3). This is significant, as it demonstrates an understanding of babel which is limited not to de jure empires but also to de facto mechanisms of control. Wealth exerts power, and Babylon has corrupted empire and conglomerate alike.

Second, borrowing from Jeremiah 51 (yet again), the author urges the audience to “come out of her, my people” (v. 4), which assumes they live within the reach of Babylon–just as exiled Israel and Judah did. Consistent with the Pauline conception of the dark kingdom’s present existence (cf. 2 Tim. 4.18, in which full salvation/healing-from still awaits), the audience of the Revelation are still under the rule and reign of Babylon, despite belonging to another kingdom. All the more troubling, considering how much more intensive is this expanded kingdom.

Finally, the end of this kingdom mirrors the prophesied end of Old Testament Babylon: utter devastation, ruin, a return to the wasteland (cp. Rev. 18.17, 19; Jer. 51.26, 29, 37, 55). At least two of the reasons for Babylon’s destruction is carried from Jeremiah 51 to Revelation 18: revenge or vindication “for the slain of Israel” (Jer. 51.49) and “the blood of prophets and of saints” (Rev. 18.24), as well recompense for all evil Babylon committed (cp. Jer. 51.49 and Rev. 18.6). The image of utter devastation (wasteland-ing, as it were) recalls Jeremiah 51 but also Genesis 1’s and Isaiah 34’s tohu. The Greek term of Revelation 18.17 and 19 translated “laid waste” comes from ερεμος, which in at least one place in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) is used to render tohu (Deut. 34.11). Babylon’s wasteland will be overcome by the kingdom of god, rejiggered to be filled with fruit and the glory of god rather than death and godlessness.

The Scripture begins with god creating against a backdrop of formlessness and void, a wilderness. In the wilderness, he made form and structure, even cultivating an especial garden wherein god dwelt with the man and the woman. Although the original horticultural goal was put on hold, the ultimate aim for creation was always to expand the kingdom into the wilderness, creating life and form where there was only death and disarray. Babel and Babylon have been the principal instantiations of this wilderness throughout Scripture, whether they were invigorated by Bel, the Dragon, or the Satan. At the conclusion of this age, these enemies and their kingdom will be vanquished, and all that will remain is the perfection of the heavenly kingdom throughout the cosmos.

[1] Really, the book should either be referred to as “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” or, ideally, “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ.” Both are a bit unwieldy. And while I do prefer “the Unveiling,” there’s not a person reading this who would intuitively understand that reference. Maybe I’ll make a formal argument for translating apokalypsis “unveiling” rather than “revelation,” but that will wait for another day. In the meantime, prudence demands “revelation.”

Regardless, the longer titles of the books of Scripture are more helpful than the shorthand variants that the tradition of the church have brought. “The Gospel according to Matthew” reveals much more of the book’s purpose than “Matthew,” and “The Unveiling of Jesus Christ” is much, much more useful than “Revelation/s.” Nevertheless, prudence again wins this round.

[2] One thing that should be noted about Genesis 10 especially is the degree to which it reads as a kind of metaphorical history, in the sense that the sons listed are all names of locations and areas, which would become in later generations enemies of the people of Israel. It raises questions concerning not only the compositional history of the Pentateuch but also how one should read the text: are these intended to be the names of children, or are these to be understood more broadly as a kind of figurative history? I do not believe that either answer necessarily maligns an understanding of Scripture as god-breathed; it’s a matter of getting to a proper (i.e. defensible) read of the text. Only a naïve literalism eliminates from the outset the second reading. These ambiguities will not be addressed in this post. While I recognize that my list of possible future posts is adding up with every footnote, I must again push further consideration to another time.

[3] I will look more into this. The structure of Gen. 1-11 is curious, insofar as it is functionally distinct from the rest of Torah (“The Primeval History”) and insofar as it has a discernible arc from beginning to end (Eden to Babel).

Review: Made for Friendship (2018)

36746758Drew Hunter published Made for Friendship: the Relationships that Halve Our Sorrows and Double our Joys through Crossway in 2018. Hunter insists on “raising our esteem for friendship” (14), and he succeeds by enhancing our conception of it. Distinguishing his view from the normal usage of “friendship,” Hunter goes so far as to define salvation as friendship with god (23) and to exclaim that “friendship is the ultimate end of our existence and our highest source of happiness” (19). No small part of our lives, then.

Hunter does well establishing friendship as an essential feature of our world, noting that god had to fill a lack in the prelapsarian cosmos when he created the woman, because it was “not good” for the man to be alone (41). This was certainly the most interesting argument of the book, as far as I’m concerned–and one which I will pursue further in my own studies; it suggests something a bit strange about god’s creative process, which, if true, means we’ve ignored important parts of the creation narrative.

Another interesting facet of the book is Hunter’s appropriation of Vanhoozer’s argument (123) that the Trinity created all things in order to further perfect its already perfect communion; the entrance of men and women into the perichoretic friendship of the godhead does not detract from the essential perfection of the godhead but adds to it. Again, if this is the case, it suggests a few things about divine simplicity and the nature of god.

These somewhat abstract concerns aside, Hunter offers a variety of solid reasons for embracing friendship and seeking out opportunities to grow in our ability to befriend. (Hunter disavows friendliness as mere courtesy, a point well-taken.) Friendship enhances our own lives and the lives of those around us, and we do well to become better friends.

At its core, Made for Friendship is pastoral. Hunter wants his readers to become more like the people god created them to be, particularly insofar as their “friendship” with Jesus is concerned. At times, especially toward the end as Hunter explicitly addresses friendship with god, the book felt trite. This is a shame, because to be called a “friend of god” is a high honor (Is. 41.8) and marks a kind of restoration of the Edenic communion (cf. Gen. 3.8, in its anticipation of the forthcoming break in fellowship).

Nevertheless, Made for Friendship succeeds where Hunter seeks to promote friendship as the particularization of that broad idea of “community.” He offers winsome and practical exhortations for those that desire to increase their aptitude for friendship. In that respect, Made for Friendship is worth the read.

I received a complimentary edition of this work from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.