Of Pride & Self Worship: A Theological Exegesis of Amos 6:1-8

Introduction

This exegesis is meant to explore the oracle of Amos 6:1-8 while also having an attentive mind to the ways in which God may be speaking to us today. It is Amos who states, “Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?”[1] A rhetorical question that the prophet asks early in his letter so that those who would hear his words would recognize the deep calling he felt in proclaiming God’s judgments to the nation. While Amos walked with the Lord in this calling, let us also walk together as we listen to God’s words of judgment through his prophet and seek a deeper discernment to what God may reveal to us today.

Amos the Man and the Backdrop of Israel

The prophet Amos was an average Judean countryside herdsman and caretaker of fig trees near a small town called Takoa, which was about 10km south of the city of Jerusalem.[2] This was probably a family vocation and homestead that he inherited from his father, who was neither a priest nor a prophet himself, and could have included a small heard of sheep and cattle that grazed on the fig plants.

The oracles and actions of Amos were probably recorded between the reigns of king Jeroboam II of the northern kingdom of Israel (760-750 BCE) and king Uzziah of Judah in the southern kingdom (783-742 BCE). Israel and Judah, although divided, had both established equitable and profitable economic ties with the Assyrian and Egyptian Empires while serving as a trade route between the two nations. As Theresa Lafferty points out, “The presence of Assyria as a serious threat to Israel and Judah was a constant background for the messages of the eighth-century prophets. Isaiah and Micah prophesy that YHWH is going to use Assyria as a punitive means to correct the problems within Israel and Judah.”[3]

It was during this economic boom and social state of peace that two shifts were taking place in the kingdom of Israel. “The prophets’ message concerning the poor and their oppressors included but involved more than the problem of individual greed or covetousness.” As Stuart Love expands the thought, “Their message was shaped by a shift in the very structure of Israelite society — old tribal patterns of life were dying, being abandoned or replaced by the new powerful social organization of two developed, exploitive and corrupt dynasties, Israel and Judah.”[4] Power was beginning to shift from a social covenant community practice to a capitalistic elitist few who had political and economic standings. Power was then also being maintained in the favor of the elite few through a politically corrupted legal system that would oppress the poor through enforced land acquisition and prolonged dept.

Along with several other prophets including Elijah, Joel, Micah, and others, Amos is given a vision from YHWH in judgment over Israel and Judah. “Although Amos engaged self-consciously in the activity of prophesying, he explicitly denied the vocation of a nabi (7:14), a professional prophet supported by a cultic or royal shrine. He was at effort to show that he prophesied only by divine compulsion under extraordinary circumstances (3:8; 7:15).”[5]

With the conviction of God on his heart, Amos would begin his ministry in Aram and move through Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. Ted Grimsrud articulates that, “Amos preaches a transcendent ethic—God is not identified with Israel per se. God is identified with justice and righteousness. When Israel itself is unjust, it also is judged.”[6] It was a prophetic perspective that, “the land was rightfully theirs. But now, the courts had become centers for the seizure and redistribution of moveable and unmovable property.”[7] As Grimsrud would state it, “The land was for the sake of the good of everyone, not for the sake of the profit of a few.”[8]

Amos’s relationship with YHWH found significance and authority apart from the institution of state and temple while defining God’s Truth and character in the recognition of justice and righteousness for all people and nations. In dramatic example we see in his opposition while in Bethel, Amos is confronted by Amaziah who told him, “Don’t prophesy here at Bethel any more. This is the king’s place of worship, the national temple.”[9] Ironically, even Israel’s king had lost his vision for the Hebrew identity in YHWH and the rightful place of worship being in Jerusalem. This loss of national and cultural identity to YHWH and His charisma of justice and righteousness was in no way segregated to the prophets alone as there would be no doubt a deep recognition of the loss throughout both kingdoms.

A Bigger Picture to the Book of Amos

The book of Amos is divided into three distinct sections with the first being the prophets beginning proclamations of judgment against the kingdom of Israel (Amos 1:1-2:16). Stuart Love identifies 6 crimes that the prophets speak of to which the kingdom had perpetrated:

  • Land Seizure (Micah 2:2; cf. 2:9; Amos 2:7a; Isaiah 5:8)
  • Debt Slavery (Amos 2:6b; 8:4b)
  • Perversion of Legal Procedure (Amos 5:10, 12; cf. 2:7a; 5:15; Isa. 5:23; 10:2; Micah 3:9-11)
  • Sexual Oppression (Amos 2:7b)
  • Security On Loans (Amos 2:8)
  • Deceitful Merchants (Amos 8:4-6)

Amos then begins to give a greater explanation and reasons for God’s judgment (Amos 3:1-6:14). As Stuart Love expounds, “Israel did not ‘know how to do right’ (3:10). Justice had been turned to wormwood, righteousness had been cast down and obedience to God’s righteousness forsaken.”[10] This was of course envisioned not of the people overall but the elitist leaders who were ideologically circumventing Hebraic justice and righteousness.

Theresa Lafferty comments on Amos’s repeated focus, “The thrice repeated word pair ‘justice and righteousness’ serves to make clear that whereas just and righteous conduct should be having the same effect as life-giving water (5:24), the people have turned justice into poison (6:12) and have forcibly thrown righteousness to the ground (5:7).”[11] The effect being in essence that they have thrown YHWH to the ground and trampled the very covenant that has given them identity as a nation and called people.

In the last section of the book of Amos are the visions of judgment to which is being revealed to the prophet (Amos 7:1-9:15). With the contrast being drawn by Lafferty, she illustrates, “Justice and righteousness in the people’s lives, hospitality toward their neighbours, right judgments at the city gates, proper weights and measures in the markets, these ways of worshipping YHWH were far more important than offering an unneeded sacrifice.”[12]

Despite God’s judgment of the people of Israel being led off into exile, His faith endures and hope is established for the future as Amos’s oracles close; “I will plant my people on the land I gave them, and they will not be pulled up again.” The Lord your God has spoken.[13]

A Closer Look at Amos 6:1-8

Amos 6:1-8 also revels three distinct sections through the spoken proclamation of God. The first being found in verses 1-3 as a set of woes to a great and prideful people.

Woe to you who are at ease in Zion, And trust in Mount Samaria,

Notable persons in the chief nation, To whom the house of Israel comes!

2 Go over to Calneh and see; And from there go to Hamath the great; Then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory?

3 Woe to you who put far off the day of doom, Who cause the seat of violence to come near;[14]

The depiction of a ruling class is inlayed upon the wording as it describes the prideful nature to which they use in distinguishing themselves set apart from others. Grimsrud describes how, “book of Amos gives glimpses of the people’s enthusiastic self-confidence (6:1; 8:3) and their popular religiosity that saw the nation’s prosperity as the inevitable result of its faithfulness to God.”[15] These were a people that became blinded by their own greatness while masking it as God’s blessing upon them.

It was this institution of false blessing that they would attempt to forcibly perpetuate and maintain, putting off the prophets calls for YHWH’s judgment, that would ultimately lead them to the “seat of violence” and the coming exile. Within all, “political circles there was tumult and oppression, violence and robbery (3:9–10). People hated any judge who would reprove them or speak uprightly (5:10).”[16] Ellen Davis so rightly contradicts this culture stating that, “The prophetic demand for moral, economic, and religious integrity in human communities and the recognition that human integrity in these several dimensions is fundamentally related to the God-given integrity of creation.”[17] Authentic blessings come through the justice and righteousness of a living God and not the institutions of a political or religious human entity.

The second section of God’s proclamation in Amos 6 is in verses 4-6 where the people’s complacency and moralistic slumber within their idle riches are detailed and revealed.

4 Who lie on beds of ivory, Stretch out on your couches, Eat lambs from the flock And calves from the midst of the stall;

5 Who sing idly to the sound of stringed instruments, And invent for yourselves musical instruments like David;

6 Who drink wine from bowls, And anoint yourselves with the best ointments, But are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.[18]

The segregation of the richer and poorer classes are highlighted as the upper ruling class is found to be in a life of luxury while the lower class are not even bereaved or thought of in their lacking and suffering. “The problem in Israel,” as Grimsrud writes, “was not that the people did not know intellectually the precepts of the law and their concern for the needy. The problem was the unwillingness on the part of the leaders and judges to administer the law fairly.”[19]

The ruling elite had become complacent in their present standing and turned to inner justification for self morality and ethical pursuits. J. E. Smith gives five descriptions to the rulers and elitists[20] found within Israel at this time:

  • “First, they were guilty of hardened unbelief.”
  • “Second, heartless oppression characterized these sinners.”
  • “Third, they were guilty of sinful self-indulgence”
  • Fourth, they indulged in profane revelry.”
  • Finally, the leaders of Israel showed calloused unconcern.”

The third section in verses 7-8 of Amos 6 details God’s final judgment for the people of Israel while foreshadowing the coming fall of Judah as well.

7 Therefore they shall now go captive as the first of the captives, And those who recline at banquets shall be removed.

8 The Lord God has sworn by Himself, The Lord God of hosts says: “I abhor the pride of Jacob, And hate his palaces; Therefore I will deliver up the city And all that is in it.”[21]

It is hard to see but as Grimsrud shares, “These verses add a sense of God’s ultimately redemptive purpose in his judgments. The book as a whole, it seems, makes the point that God’s people need to live according to God’s justice. Those who do not will be judged (and self-destruct), those who do are given hope for the future. If there were no judgment, the poor would have no hope since their oppressors would never be called to account.”[22]

Textual Nuances, Theological & Historical Implications

The revelations revealed within Amos’s writings hold many nuances and theological implications to not only our historical understandings but also the truths that transcend time. In witnessing their authority we can constructively discern God’s voice into the contexts and situations of today. Although I do not want to exhaust my observations, these are a few that I have found to be of significance.

We Must Always Seek Justice over Pride & Self Service

Both Jeroboam II and Uzziah historically sought to exploit the perceived weaknesses to the Assyrian and Egyptian empires as regional superpowers in need of a trade route. By doing so the two kingdoms would attain political stability and territorial expansion as excavations in, “Samaria have yielded archeological evidence of urban population growth and the development of an economic elite possessing large houses furnished with imported luxury items.”[23] But this would only be a temporal state of peace and economic growth because it depended on the favor of the surrounding nations and not the God given identity YHWH had bestowed on His people.

With civil unrest growing the, “moral condition of the nation was clearly revealed by the prophet’s shock at the cruel treatment of the poor by the rich, at the covetousness, injustice, and immorality of the people in power, and at the general contempt for things holy (2:6–8).”[24] It would not be long and both kingdoms would fall, first to the Assyrian army and then Judah, to the Babylonian forces.

While human institutions can offer positive gain through economic growth and social status, we can also become complacent and blind to the realities of objective righteousness and justice for all creation. Health and wealth propositions serve a self-giving proportion that outweighs and out measures authentic human integrity and moral and ethical character. As Walter Brueggermann states, “When we suffer from amnesia, every form of serious authority for faith is in question, and we live unauthorized lives of faith and practice unauthorized ministries.”[25]

Moving From Consumerist Institutional Idolatry to Authentic Communal Worship

Amos identifies two pagan deities as God pronounces to the Israelites:

25 “People of Israel, you did not bring me sacrifices and offerings while you traveled in the desert for forty years.

26 You have carried with you your king, the god Sakkuth,and Kaiwan your idol,and the star gods you have made.

27 So I will send you away as captives beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God All-Powerful.[26]

Referencing the Hebrews 40 years in the desert, Amos identifies them worshiping the deities that were introduced to them by the Moabites. It was a pagan practice of worshiping the dead and as the Psalmist identifies, “They joined in worshiping Baal at Peor and ate meat that had been sacrificed to lifeless statues.”[27]

Throughout the Old Testament this pagan worship was described in a festival known as the marzeah, which, “is probably derived from the root word rzh which in Arabic means, ‘to fall down from fatigue or other weakness and remain prostrate without the power to rise.’”[28] In essence, it was a pagan feast of gluttony, over indulgence, and drunkenness.

With the description of the Israelites being stretched out on ivory couches, feasting on lamb and veal, drinking wine by the bowl full, and indulging in the profanity of perfume and oils, Amos witnesses to their idolatrous worship through the practices of marzeah (Amos 6:7). It does not seem to be too big of a stretch in seeing the Israelites here foreshadowing the story of the bloody finger writing on the Babylonians wall during the coming exile (Dan. 5:1-12).

Intriguingly, the Greeks would also practice the marzeah in connection to the worship of Dionysius and the pagan rituals around sacred marriages and funerary feasts. John Garstang writes, “The conception of the Great Mother as goddess of the dead is by no means strained or unnatural, for the resurrection and future life is a dominant theme in the universal myth associated with her. And just as the dead year revived in springtime through her mediation, so she may have been entreated on behalf of the dead for their well-being or their return to life.”[29]

The Israelites of the 8th century had become so enamoured by the pagan gods of their economic, political, and religious global counterparts that they had consumeristically embraced their practices and rituals while completely loosing all communion with YHWH, the God who truly formed them as a people and nation dedicated in His identity.

With such a strong connection to worship and the belief in resurrection through marriage, the theological implications to the Last Supper and Christ’s resurrection are insurmountable. Identifiably, “Later, Jesus would comment to His disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ (Luke 18:24) Prosperity promotes values in deep conflict with what God Himself says is important.”[30] The practice and ritual of the Eucharist and communion enters us into a completely new imagination of kingdom and citizenship, one that Walter Brueggermann identifies as meaning, “to [actually] live inside God’s imagination. It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ.”[31]

When the illusions of economic success and global standing foster a culture of consumerism, the social consequences create a moral and spiritual numbness or empty drain that completely erodes the fabric of societal function. With no responsibility for neighbour or common other, it is only a matter of time before the self-serving nature and ideology of consumerism completely destroys communal abilities. “Thus consumerism,” Ellen Davis shares, “is the death of Christian eschatology. There can be no rupture with the status quo, no in breaking kingdom of God, but only endless superficial novelty.”[32]

I think it is important to recognize the funerary practice of mourning as well. While revelry and celebratory feasting can dull one’s senses to the recognition of loss, mourning allows the soul to grieve the wrongs within society and the losses of human identity. Juliana Claassens writes that the, “tears of the people serve as an important—quite often the only—tool to counter injustice. The tears of God, as embodied in the wailing women, call on us to resist those instances where contemporary manifestations of the empire abuse their power—be it in instances of war and genocide, or where big business and oil companies abuse their power, or where unjust governments trample upon whoever is in their way.”[33]

By stripping away consumeristic institutional idolatry and embracing authentic communal worship, the individual can and will find a true fulfillment of purpose and deep understanding of belonging that connects them with meaningful practices in the present as well as discernment into the economic, political, and religious communities around them. As Davis shares, “Any ‘little economy’—that is, a human economy—may succeed and endure only to the extent that ‘it justly and stably represents the value of necessary goods, such as clothing, food, and shelter, which originate ultimately in the Great Economy.’ When economies and cultures fail to recognize the Great Economy or kingdom in which all value originates, ‘they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value’.”[34]

Conclusions Not Withstanding The Works Of The Miraculous To Come

Sitting at the eating bar with a coffee next to me, I began reading a book I had just picked up called ‘A Common Ground: Lessons and Legends from the World’s Great Faiths’. Figuring I would read a bit before beginning my dwelling time, I opened it to a beginning fable:

“A man who wrote fables was passing through a secluded forest when he met Fortune. The Fabulist attempted to flee, but Fortune pursued until he captured the Fabulist. “Why did you try to run away?” asked Fortune. “And why do you regard me with so much animosity?” “Well,” answered the Fabulist, “I don’t know what you are.” “I will tell you what I am,” said Fortune. “I am wealth. I am respectability. I am beautiful homes. I am a yacht and a clean shirt each day. I am leisure and I am travel. I am fine wine and a shiny hat and a warm coat. I am enough to eat.” “Very well,” said the Fabulist in a whisper. “But for goodness’ sake speak softer.” “Why?” asked Fortune. “So as not to wake me,” replied the Fabulist.”[35]

Reaching deep into the Spirit during my dwelling time, I couldn’t help but sense the great slumber of the Israelites while they lounged on their ivory couches, feasted on the elaborate banquets, drank freely and had little need for anything. It seemed as though the soft spoken riches of their present condition was about to be abruptly woken up to the excruciatingly laud realities of brutal conquest and humiliating exile.

While finding great reflections in global and local economies and institutions, what struck me the most in that moment was the incredibly long shadow it cast over the Christian church. With such a consumer driven culture of personal salvation, institutional pride, moral and ethical elitism, and self-serving salvific pride; has the church fallen madly asleep in the face of certain coming insignificance at best, and total obliteration at worst?! In the words of Walter Brueggermann:

“The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or to act… The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture.”[36]

If we are to learn anything from the oracles of Amos and the history of the Israelites, it is that we cannot remain in a consumeristic culture of pride and self-worship. We must wake up and endeavor to pursue the works of the miraculous as it is defined by Davis as, “not an interruption of an order, but rather the irruption of the true order—the order of the creator God—into the demonic order of the present world…. It is an announcement that the new order is at hand, that ultimately power belongs to the God of creation, of true order, freedom, and justice.”[37]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Amos 3:3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Ibid. (Amos 1:1 & 7:14).

[3] Lafferty, Theresa V. Prophetic Critique Of The Priority Of The Cult: A Study of Amos 5:21-24 & Isaiah 1:10-17. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012) Kindle LOC #660.

[4] Love, Stuart. “Failing To Do Justice: The Quandary Of The Poor In Eigth Century Israel & Judah.” Leaven, Article 4, Volume 1, no. Issue 2 Ministry To The Poor (1990): 11-17. http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol1/iss2/4) Page #12.

[5] Freedman, David Noel, Astrid B. Beck, and Allen C. Myers. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) Pg. #56.

[6] Grimsrud, Ted. “04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice.” Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[7] Love, Stuart. “Failing To Do Justice: The Quandary Of The Poor In Eigth Century Israel & Judah.” Leaven, Article 4, Volume 1, no. Issue 2 Ministry To The Poor (1990): 11-17. http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol1/iss2/4) Page #12.

[8] Grimsrud, Ted. “04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice.” Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[9] American Bible Society. (1992). The Holy Bible: The Good news Translation (2nd ed., Am 7:13). New York: American Bible Society.

[10] Love, Stuart. “Failing To Do Justice: The Quandary Of The Poor In Eigth Century Israel & Judah.” Leaven, Article 4, Volume 1, no. Issue 2 Ministry To The Poor (1990): 11-17. http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol1/iss2/4) Page #16.

[11] Lafferty, Theresa V. Prophetic Critique Of The Priority Of The Cult: A Study of Amos 5:21-24 & Isaiah 1:10-17. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012) Kindle LOC #845.

[12] Ibid. Kindle LOC #1578.

[13] American Bible Society. (1992). The Holy Bible: The Good news Translation (2nd ed., Am 9:15). New York: American Bible Society.

[14] The New King James Version. (1982). (Am 6:1–3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[15] Grimsrud, Ted. “04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice.” Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[16] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (p. 462). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[17] Davis, Ellen F. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives For Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) Kindle LOC #327.

[18] The New King James Version. (1982). (Am 6:4–6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[19] Grimsrud, Ted. “04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice.” Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[20] Smith, J. E. (1994). The Minor Prophets (Am 6:3–6). Joplin, MO: College Press.

[21] The New King James Version. (1982). (Am 6:7–8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[22] Grimsrud, Ted. “04. Healing Justice: The Prophet Amos and a “New” Theology of Justice.” Peace Theology. June 03, 2008. Accessed April 04, 2017. https://peacetheology.net/pacifism/4-healing-justice-the-prophet-amos-and-a-new-theology-of-justice/.

[23] Freedman, David Noel, Astrid B. Beck, and Allen C. Myers. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) Pg. #56.

[24] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (p. 462). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[25] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001) Kindle LOC #284.

[26] The Everyday Bible: New Century Version. (2005). (Am 5:25–27). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[27] The Everyday Bible: New Century Version. (2005). (Ps 106:28). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[28] Arcalog. Accessed April 08, 2017. http://www.arcalog.com/baal-peor-and-the-marzeah-feast/.

[29] “INTRODUCTION.” The Syrian Goddess: Introduction. Accessed April 08, 2017. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/tsg/tsg04.htm.

[30] Richards, L., & Richards, L. O. (1987). The teacher’s commentary (p. 462). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[31] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001) Kindle LOC #219.

[32] Davis, Ellen F. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives For Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) Kindle LOC #2602.

[33] Claassens, L. Juliana M. Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence In The Old Testament. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) Kindle LOOC #851.

[34] Davis, Ellen F. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives For Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) Kindle LOC #2207.

[35] Outcalt, Todd. A Common Ground: Lessons and Legends From The World’s Great Faiths. (New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2015) Kindle LOC #34.

[36] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001) Kindle LOC #277 & #281.

[37] Davis, Ellen F. Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives For Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) Kindle LOC #1367.

‘Silence’ ~ Stepping Onto A Faith Of Kenosis

(Spoiler Alert: This post contains depictions and stories from the film ‘Silence’.)

It has been some time since I was this hungry to see an upcoming film. For the last month I have been excitedly waiting for the movie ‘Silence’ to be released with more then an eager imagination to engage the story and dramatic scenes of cultural and religious reflection. With such an internal build up, it was ironic as we sat in the theatre following the show and I shared with my wife and friends that it was not at all what I had expected.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie was brilliant and it is easily one of my favourites to date. I can’t wait to be able to read the book this summer. But I had expected it to be an emotional rollercoaster for me and instead of pulling out the kleenex box I had tucked in my backpack (all while under the loving mockery of my wife), I found myself engrossed into theological intrigue and intellectual imaginative bliss!

Playing with the cultural dynamics of each of the characters and allowing my thoughts to focus on the themes and ritualistic scenes in the movie, my mind raced with questions, thoughts, imaginative metaphors and life like comparisons. What are sacraments and Holy Relics and what significances do they have in faith? Where does theosis or katharsis meet inner sanctification and authentic transformation? What is the gospel and how does it morph positively and negatively within time, space, and culture? What does it mean to be a “Christian” and how has its meaning changed since Jesus called his first disciples? Perhaps most of all, when and how do you embrace kenosis and the emptying of ones self for the sake of the other and what forms does it embrace?!

Perhaps in an ironic mirroring of characterization, I had become the Inquisitor?!

Sacramental Idolatry and Holy Relic Imagery

It’s really only a formality.” These were the encouraging words the priest Rodrigues heard from his Interpreter, played by Tadanobu Asano, as he was challenged to publicly denounce his Christian faith and step onto the clay tablet bearing the image of Jesus. The internal horror and anguish of such a task was unbearably written on Rodrigues face and yet I found myself questioning, what power or authority does this image have over him?! (Psalm 115:4-8)

Throughout the film the image of the sacraments within priestly duties and the giving of Holy Relics were dramatically highlighted as Christian markers of identity. Perhaps most strikingly we can see it in a scene where Rodrigues narrated his role in bestowing religious elements upon the Japanese villagers and finding himself short of materials, began giving the beads of his Rosary away as though each bead encompassed a redeeming significance to the holder.

Since the early church, images like the cross, the fish, and artistic depictions of Jesus have been used to tell the story of the gospel and create a cultural narrative of belonging through worship. But we cannot allow these depictions and Holy Relics to become graven images and objects of our worship. (Ex. 20:3-5) The story of the gospel internally carries the sacraments and relics of its past, but it can also embrace the reflection of new forms in the cultural narrative it is contextually a part of and being introduced. The sacraments and relics of today can be found in cultural arts and contemporary elements such as shared meals with friends, family members, and strangers. Perhaps instead of a fish signifying a disciple, one might find the other in a holy hug embrace. Or, while the symbolic representation of the cross projects a spirit of forgiveness, a person might find the sharing of a family heirloom while seeking reconciliation just as spiritually impactful.

The Despisal Of The Mokichi In All Of Us

mokichiBless me Father, for I have sinned!” It had to be maddening for Rodrigues as Mokichi repeatedly over and over would come to him smelling of filth, wrecked with the lack of personal care, and begging for a seemingly shallow desire for repentance and restoration. It was probably around the third time he would, in Judas like fashion, betray his friends and family that I felt this burning anger of despisal against him. Why would Rodrigues waste his time with this shallow character and man of seemingly no virtue?!

Wrestling with this disgust of Mokichi and his character I realized something; despite our rejection of his lack of virtue, our anguish over his constant betrayal and life of self serving drunkenness and filth… Isn’t there a little of Mokichi in all of us? This self preserving pride of seeking personal pleasure apart from others? This mind set of, “Well, nobody can be perfect“, and so we give into the little temptations of justified failures? All the while quick to repent and cry out in there public revealing, “Forgive me! I am weak and in need of your grace!

It is a belief that is captured in the early parts of the film that the Japanese people needed the priests so that they could impart the Word of God, present the sacraments of communion, and receive the confessions of the villagers so that forgiveness and restoration could then be given. The early church called this practice theosis or katharsis and while the outer actions of the priests were performed, it was believed the inner transformation would then take place.

Jesus uses a metaphor that dramatically reverses this process. While rebuking the Pharisees and Priests, Jesus tells them that they are cleaning the outside of the cup while leaving the inside still full of greed and self indulgence. Rather, they need to clean the inside of the cup so that the outside may also become clean. (Matt. 23:25-26)

Rodrigues would later not only forgive Mokichi, he would embrace him as part of his life and even thank him for always being there. By recognizing the Mokichi inside each of ourselves I ponder the journey of inner repentance, our wrestling with the self hatred and despisment of constant moral and practical failure, and our reliance for the need of our relationship with the Rodrigues’ in our life who grant mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Ironically you can almost see the reflective imagery that it is Jesus who becomes the priest that lastly embraces us, coarse and rough like the wood of the cross, and thanking us for always being there, always returning in the hopes that we might do better despite our weakness.

A Swampland Of Certain Glory & Kinds of Poisons

war-lordsThe price for your glory is their suffering.” These words seemed to echo as Inquisitor Inoue spoke them to Rodrigues. He would go on to compare Japan to a swampland and Christianity to that of a poison. But what is the Christianity that he is speaking of and who’s glory is he really reflecting upon?

While the character of Inquisitor Inoue is fictional, the times depicted in the movie are not. During the early 1600’s there was a Japanese puritan movement where the War Lord’s of Japan were asking the question, “What is a pure Japanese?” Then, hoping to maintain that ideology, they began persecuting and eradicating anything considered not Japanese, particularly the Christian church. Tens of thousands of Japanese Christians would be killed during this time and it was extremely dangerous  for missionaries to travel in the islands of Japan.

We might reverse the question of the Inquisitor however; what does it mean to be a pure Christian? While Rodrigues and the other Catholic priests that came to Japan brought a gospel proclaimed by the universal Christian church, it seemed rote with dogmatic doctrine and institutional teachings that were far from the words of justice, mercy, love, and forgiveness embodied in the story of Jesus. In many ways, the Christianity Rodrigues and the other priests brought was a movement of conquest driven by the pride of western self-righteousness and with the goal institutional glory.

Perhaps Rodrigues’ mentor and teacher, Father Ferreira, brought this point to the surface of his young protégé’s heart as he spoke the words to him, “I do because you are just like me. You see Jesus in Gethsemane and believe your trial is the same as His. Those five in the pit are suffering too, just like Jesus, but they don’t have your pride. They would never compare themselves to Jesus. Do you have the right to make them suffer? I heard the cries of suffering in this same cell. And I acted.

In the same Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) It is intriguing to think that Jesus used the words of “laying down one’s life” as appose to “death” or “dying”. Far simpler to understand the martyrdom of giving ones self over to death for the sake of those you love then to imagine the complexities of laying down ones life, ones hopes and beliefs, ones very identity, for the sake of those you love!

I wonder, were it you in that cell, what decision might have you made? Or perhaps the better question would be, who would you love most?!

Apostatizing And Stepping Onto A Faith Of Kenosis

Step on your Jesus! Apostatize yourself!” the Inquisitor Inoue challenges the priest Rodrigues. We’ve come full circle and now the words of the Interpreter rings out again, “It is really only a formality.” While the words of the Interpreter had us question the power and authority within the outer images and elements of the stone tablet, the words of the Inquisitor have us question the authority and power found within Rodrigues the individual.

To apostatize himself, Rodrigues would be publicly renouncing everything he stood for; not just his beliefs in Jesus, but his identity as a priest, his recognition of authority in and for the church, his western philosophical world views, and even ultimately, his own name! But just as we asked if the stone tablet that he was challenged to step on would have any authority or power over him, we can also ask, does any of the outer acts of renunciation he makes change the inner authority or power found within him?

The apostle Paul uses a word in Philippians 2 to describe a similar act; it is the word “kenosis“. It means to completely empty one self of all significance and meaning and he uses it in the depiction of the incarnation of Christ. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:1-11) It is as though God’s love for his creation was so great, he apostatized himself so that he might redeem us!

I found it so powerful to contemplate that all the time Rodrigues spent in the outer works of the Christian church he believed in, all the efforts and religious rituals he sacrificed himself too, and all the while in anguish over God’s seemingly silence to his labours; and yet it is in this moment of his public apostasy that the deafening voice of Christ speaks to him, “It is ok. I am here with you. It is for this moment that I died for you.” And then, without a sound Rodrigues seems to not step on the stone, but find himself on top of it.

It seems that the message of the movie ‘Silence‘ becomes heaviest when we are willing to contemplate that the authenticity of the Christian walk is not necessarily in the silence of our outer self serving institutional blind actions but in our willingness to apostatize ones self and step onto the deafening absolute complete submission of Christ’s authority and power through our own inner actions of kenosis for the sake of others!

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” ~ 2 Cor. 12:9

Finding Blood, Fire and Smoky Mist In Today’s Wait For The Big Kahuna

smoky-mistBlood, fire and smoky mist (Joel 2:30), words which as Mark shares are rich in the metaphorical presence of spirituality and biblically spoken to the eminence of God in creation. I can’t dismiss the physicality of these elements in scripture. Was Joel speaking figuratively or literally? Does the timing have to be the same for them all? Are they telling of some real narrative recorded later in God’s story such as the blood and water pouring out from Christ’s chest? I don’t really know and it could also boil down to the semantics of questioning the definition of reality.

Still, I think there is a validity both metaphorically and physically to Joel’s words in the eschatological sense; or end to one world and the beginning of the other. This morning I spoke in my old college around the Wisdom of God revealed through the story of Job while dwelling in Job 38-42. Metaphorically these passages speak eschatologically into the new life Job would be living and I tied it to the point that ‘It’s not about who started it, it’s about who finishes it’. It is Job’s character of submitting everything he has, both the good and the bad (Job 2:10), that allows God to bring him into the newness of a man who, “girds up his loins before” (38:3) all of creation and declares God’s, “things to wonderful” (42:3), to mystifying, to amazing to be more then just about “me“!

Likewise, Jesus on the cross submits himself to God in the work of defeating sin while crying, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) The world of brokenness, separation from God, the blindness of the Kingdom being present is removed and a new world is set in its place where we might live in the freedom of God’s promises multiplied through the Spirit’s gifting’s and catalyzing us into a the missio Dei while being in “awe” at the “wonders and signs” (Acts 2:43) manifesting themselves amidst us.

The church then, “moves in the world with humility, knowing that it is always being called to its own conversion as it attempts to embody the coming realities of the Kingdom.” (Mark, Pg. #15) A Kingdom where creation has “all things in common” (Acts 2:44), justice and righteousness is sought for all (2:45), and hospitality is given to everyone without reserve or indifference  (2:46).

I think a good question might be in that as we submit to God through the work of the apostles, how might we define “work“? While the Christian community embodies the metaphorical “Blood, fire and smoky mist” as signs to the presence of Christ’s Spirit through the discipling identity of communal prayer, breaking of bread, and dwelling in God’s Word; these terms must apostolically (Eph. 4) become engrained into all of life’s expressions, both personally and communally, so as not to become a, “self-aggrandizement of the church or individuals“, but shared with all as a, “participation in God’s coming kingdom.” (Mark Pg. #15) With all of creations participation in the coming Kingdom, success is not measured by fulness of the institution or the definition of doctrine, rather it is found in the willingness for embodying a Spirit of, “inclusion, participation, generosity, and attentiveness to the other.” (Mark Pg. #24)

It was in the movie ‘The Big Kahuna’ that the character Larry Mann (played by Kevin Spacey) mistakenly asked his cohorts, “Did you mention what line of industrial lubricants Jesus would have endorsed?” It was a question in search for his own self-aggrandizement or assurance of business success which had little to do with being in service for others. The search, or wait, for the entrance of “The Big Kahuna” had little to do with the “greatness” of Larry Mann or any of the other characters, and was more about their willingness to submit to their own insignificance for the sake of the greatness of others. Or, in the words of Phil Cooper (played by Danny Devito)…

I’m saying you’ve already done plenty of things to regret, you just don’t know what they are. It’s when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you’ve done, and you wish that you had it do over, but you know you can’t, because it’s too late. So you pick that thing up, and carry it with you to remind you that life goes on, the world will spin without you, you really don’t matter in the end. Then you will gain character, because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face.

I can’t help but reflect back on a thought I had a few weeks ago. Posting it on Facebook I wrote: “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist. The greatest trick that God ever played was convincing the devil that he was winning. Which trick are you playing?”

With the embrace of new life that we find in Christ, I think we often blind ourselves to the on going death that is taking place within ourselves simultaneously. Perhaps we think it as morbid or negative to do so but, we cannot separate the joys and freedoms of a resurrected eternal life from the ongoing cruciform life we live in today as temporal created beings. While the physical cross was embraced by Jesus on the hill of Golgotha in his 33rd year, he metaphorically clung to the cross through his entire life.

Living in this way, I think, is really a continuance of practicing a life of “awe and wonder” in the Spirit’s work. Assumedly, we have confused this practice to the witness to the “good” in life while leaving the “bad” to cast off, marginalize, or exclude from the soul’s journey. Revolutionarily, Jesus diverges this understanding by calling us not to act in judgement between the “good” and the “bad“, clean and unclean, holy and unholy, but allow ourselves to see all things as new. In some sense, we are to be in awe and wonder of sin and brokenness too, not judging it and excluding it from ourselves or the other, but rather submitting it as part of the redemptive process we go through both as personal and communal beings before God in community.

Returning to the question of, “Which trick are you playing?” If we are in the effort of trying to prove the devil’s existence, attempting to judge and articulate every nature of sin in creation by saving that which we think is good and excluding that which we deem as being bad, we will fail and ultimately find little meaning in life. But if we embrace the metaphorical cross of Jesus, loose ourselves to the wonder and awe of all things both good and bad, we will find a life of ultimate significance and deepest meaning. It is a life that gives into the Spirit of all things being, “not my will Father, but yours!”

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism: A Christian Encounter

The Comforts of Home ~ Entering the Temple

Buddhist TempleDriving over to the Calgary Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple[1] I wasn’t quite sure what I would encounter. I knew that Buddhism has many different expressions and I wasn’t sure whether this community would be a full cultural emersion into eastern practices or if it would be a blend of eastern and western philosophies.

Arriving, I quickly noticed that it had recently been renovated and was very architecturally appealing. Later I would get to speak with one of the elder members of the temple who explained that the house was actually 100 years old and had only recently been renovated into the temple that it now is. There was a ramp that allowed access as I wheeled up to a wooden covered front entrance way and a wide front door which a kind lady greeted me at and held open for me to enter.

With a small front foyer entrance, there was a place to hang our coats with a staircase off to the right. It was explained to me that they often host lunches and community events in the lower basement. They had an elevator off to the other side but, I didn’t go down as the service was about to begin.

Inside the worship area at the back was a partitioned area where you could place your shoes and grab a “liturgical” book with chants and teachings. At the center of the patrician was about a 3’ high statue of Buddha wearing a rather bowl shaped hat that covered his eyes. While access was challenging due to the restrictions of my chair, I began to clearly recognize the Japanese influences on the interior decorations. Having spent many years training in a Japanese Aikido Dojo, it was an environment very familiar to me and I felt comfortable knowing my way around.

Ken, the assistant sensei, greeted me and guided my way around to a side entrance while he pulled a chair away to make space for me to sit in the main worship area. Looking to the front I could see an altar with another standing gold Buddha that had its hand extended out. Above it was hanging a golden chandelier of sorts that later was explained to me to be symbolic of a “heaven” of sorts or “nirvana” to which Buddha resides just beneath. Before the Buddha on the altar were two candles and a red apple that was placed on a gold stand (later I’ll share more on the apple). There were then two chairs and knee high Japanese tables in front of them to which the sensei’s James and Ken would sit following their entrance.

It was a cozy space and with about 20 of us in the hall, we could easily see and hear everything that was going on and enter the discussions during Ken’s teaching time. Without the formalities and pomp, you might say it was a Buddhist House Church!

Meditation, Chanting, and Teachings ~ The Harmonization of Communal Homage

Buddhist AltarWith the ringing of a bell, the two sensei’s (James and Ken) entered from behind the altar and briefly bowed towards the east side of the altar. Sitting down facing each other from either side of the altar they had us sit in silence for a few minutes for meditative reflection and then clasped their hands together in a prayerful manner and bowed again to the Buddha on the altar reciting a liturgy of respect along with the same actions by the rest of the congregation.

Ken stood up and introduced himself as James’s assistant and welcomed everyone. To be honest, I found it hard to find the authenticity in some of this experience as in my past practices of the Aikido Hombu Dojo, I was used to being around Japanese senseis that also spoke in Japanese as well. As James and Ken were not ethnically from Japan and were white westerners, it felt odd to me. In any case, Ken then had us turn the liturgy book to the homage for the ‘Three Treasure’.[2] It was all written in English and the congregation read the homage aloud.

Following the first homage, the congregation then read through the ‘Noble Eight-fold Path’ together.[3] These were predominantly a set of living principles one is committed to in remaining noble and virtuous to themselves and others. Comparatively I thought of them as being simpler forms of the virtues in Budo[4] or the Ten Commandments[5] in Judaism and the Beatitudes[6] in Jesus’ teachings on the Mount of Olives.

Over the next half hour the congregation followed several chants[7] much like the singing of hymns in the church. While Ken and James would lead the congregation into the chant, the rest would join in further into the practice. Notes and the pronunciations were in the liturgy book and once you settled into it, it was easy to follow along. At first it seemed to be rather broken in rhythm and synchronization but the further into the chanting, it seemed to begin to harmonize amidst all the congregations’ vocalizations. There seemed to be much like a unification that took place between each of the practitioners that eventually felt rather calming to me as an observer.

Ken also took a short amount of time to give a sort of conversational lesson. It wasn’t so much a sermon as it was an exploration of questions to the congregation into the proposed subject of “self” and how we find meaning in it. It felt a little disjointed as though he was having troubles articulating what he wanted to share but, in essence, Ken was addressing issues of understanding the self through levels of confidence, values for ourselves and others opinions, and the implications of having to much self which then becomes selfishness.

Remaining quiet out of respect, I felt the gospel leading my thoughts into the social understanding that we are known to ourselves only because we are first known by another. Particularly, it felt as though it would have been easy to enter the conversation with a question of “who first knew us?”

There were so many great conversations I remember having in my Aikido dojo in similar fashions; still, I remained quiet and following his teaching, Ken had everyone crowd together for a communal selfie picture before dismissing them.

Beautiful People and the Intertwining of the Communal Self

Rolling PinAfter the service, an older gentleman who was extremely friendly greeted me. We had a fantastic conversation as he shared a bit about the history of the temple and that the Buddhist community had been meeting in this house since 1980. He also shared a bit about the history of Buddhism here in Calgary as there has been a community of practitioners here since 1905. He stated that it was the first organized religion in the area although I found that hard to believe. I will most definitely need to look into this however as a narrative to YYC!

James and I also spoke for a while as he shared about the significance of the apple in front of the Buddha. He shared how it was customary to have an offering before the Buddha and traditionally it was a bowl of cooked rice. However, being that he didn’t cook rice all the time, he chose to westernize the expression with an apple. James also rationalized the gesture as that Buddha was a sensei (teacher) and as such, you bring an apple to your teacher in the hopes of good grades. All I could hear in the back of my mind was the irony of the image of the “forbidden fruit” being used as an offering and Paul’s words in Acts 17:25 that God does not need the service of human hands.

Leaving the temple everyone seemed enthusiastic for me to return. Although carefully making sure to have accessibility in their new building, it seems I was the first person in a wheelchair to come there. I was very grateful for their well wishes and while exiting was greeted by a young man named Chris.

Chris overheard me talking with James about my past in the martial arts and was intrigued. We spent the next 20 minutes on the way to the parking lot chatting and it turned out he knew an old friend from my Aikido dojo. We shared our experiences in the arts and said our good bye’s.

There was much I felt lacking spiritually in the morning’s events but there was also something about the thematic understandings of being known and the intertwining of both relationships and common desires for purpose, significance, virtue, and respect. I can’t say that I feel compelled to return to the temple for the reasons that I feel it wrong to have an image of creation before me in worship and I found myself restrained to bow to an idol.

Still, I feel compelled to bring the gospel and the conversation of the Kingdom into the realities of the virtues spoken of and I know that it is only going to happen through relational presence and the practice of proximity. As I have written and shared before, “How close or how far we find ourselves from any one person, place, or time is not as important as how we engage the possibility of movement towards or further away from them.[8] If it is not noticed yet, let me be open in saying, I have a heart for this culture and a love for these beautiful people. I do not yet know how God may bring this to be but, this experience has reminded me that I must seek and find a way to reengage with this community. To not do so would mean to have too much focus on my… self!

[1] http://calgary-buddhist.ab.ca/?doing_wp_cron=1456346280.3109951019287109375000

[2] http://www.bcc.ca/readings/three_treasures.html

[3] http://www.bcc.ca/buddhism/fournobletruthsandeightfoldpath.html

[4] http://www.mainlinebudo.com/?p=180

[5] http://lifehopeandtruth.com/bible/10-commandments/the-ten-commandments/10-commandments-list/

[6] http://www.loyolapress.com/the-beatitudes.htm

[7] http://www.bcc.ca/jodoshinshu/chanting.html

[8] https://iamjustwondering.net/2008/02/03/in-proximity-to-spirituality-where-do-you-find-yourself-gravitating-too/

A Missional Hermeneutic Pt. #4 ~ Conclusion ~ Discovering a Communal Hermeneutic

Hearing the SpiritIt is by engaging in the mission of the church that we discover a hermeneutical understanding of Ecclesiology and the way we practice community. God’s word was not meant to be confined to the single interpretation of just one person but rather meant to speak through the communal practices of a community seeking understanding and living in the diversity of expression.

Bob Goudzwaard in his book Hope in Troubled Times describes the diversity of leadership through the image of a satellite. He writes,

Globalization is like a satellite launched into space by certain booster rockets, such as the emancipation of world trade, the information technology revolution, and the existence of a coherent international monetary system. Once it has reached its appropriate height, however, the satellite turns and circles the world autonomously under its own power or dynamic. It follows only its own orbit. And from that circuit, it exerts its increasingly powerful influence on the world.[1]

God’s Word catalyzes itself through all space and time, the meaning of which is found hermeneutically through the practice of communal sharing and interpretation. As Mark Love sees this diversity,

Biblical diversity is in part the product of faithful communities reflecting on the presence of God in a variety of circumstances. In turn, this means that these circumstances are not just cultural trappings to be shed for the sake of timeless truths. Rather, these circumstances are necessary aspects of the spectrum that comprises the biblical testimonies about God.[2]

The purpose to any hermeneutic is the seeking out and understanding of God’s Word as we live within the guides of the ancient text of scripture found in the Bible. As Paul pointed out to the people of Athens so many years ago, humanity’s greatest desire is in seeking, “God, [so that they might] perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.[3]

In another phrase, Mark Love puts it as; “The point of interpretation is not simply to uncover the “message” of a text, but to discern God’s identity and the particular shape of the call of God on our life together.[4]

God deeply desires to be a part of our life and it is through his word that each of us can find ourselves being drawn into the proximity of His movement in and through us. Through the practice of a missional hermeneutic we can find not just ink written on pages but rather a living, breathing, word of life that will forever change us and bring us new meaning.

[1] Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vennen, and David Heemst, Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 140.

[2] Mark Love, “Missional Interpretation: The Encounter of a Holy God through a Living Text,” (Paper presented at Rochester College, Rochester, MI., 5.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Ac 17:27). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[4] Mark Love, “Missional Interpretation: The Encounter of a Holy God through a Living Text,” (Paper presented at Rochester College, Rochester, MI., 6.

A Missional Hermeneutic Pt. #3 ~ Three Worlds Converging: Finding a Hermeneutical Practice in Context, Cultures, and the Gospel

Upside Down WorldOver the course of reading and taking into the accounts of the strengths in each of the past approaches, I recognized a convergence of viewing scripture within the worlds of Context, Culture, and the Gospel as their movements interacted with one another. Finding a hermeneutical understanding to the scriptures could not be separated from any of these elements and through them, God would speak timelessly to all people.

Context

As Miroslav Volf recognizes, “In addition to having been written in the past, the Bible, to a great extent, tells stories about concrete events from the past.[1] We cannot dismiss the importance of recognizing the historical placement of these great narratives as well as the characters involved, the environments they take place in, the larger text to which they are a part of, and the time to which they take place.

Mark Love describes its importance as it, “bears the potentiality of bringing deeper and richer theological understanding, and, in turn, broadening our understanding of what God is doing in the world.[2]

Of course this understanding cannot dismiss the contextual account of relational placement today. Nor the reality that contexts are diverse and uniquely coexistent with a multitude of axis points to which the text speaks. Still, as James Brownson writes, “All of humanity is called to glorify God, not by suppressing diversity and particularity, but by sanctifying it.[3]

We are all uniquely part of a grand metanarrative to which God speaks. In this way we can take into account the context of scripture and find relational markers that build relevance to our understandings today.

Culture

Brownson points us in the direction that, “Each culture’s apprehension of God in scripture may be accurate but is always provisional, and that God is most fully known and glorified through a diversity of cultures and cultural perspectives.[4] It is in the understanding of traditions, rituals, politics, metaphors, anthropology, and language that the Biblical text can share a rich voice of God’s meaning and desire to communicate with his creation both in history and today.

Yet as Michael Gogheen points out, there is a danger in not taking into account the Biblical context of culture first before relationally tying it to today’s. He writes, “In the West, it is our culture’s story and its images, which have too often dominated the church’s sense of itself and informed its life. If the church is to recover its God-given identity and role in the world, it needs to be intentional about recovering the biblical story and its images.[5] If we solely base our understanding of scripture through the eyes of our cultural practices today, we run the risk of placing these images into an ideological pattern which eventually could lead to a idolatrous perpetuation, dismissing the role of God at the blinded arrogance of human religious control.

Taking into account the Biblical understanding of culture can lead us to an understanding of the root meaning and therefore allow God to speak diversely and creatively throughout all cultures. In James Brownson’s words, “The reality of God’s presence is at least potentially available within the symbolic world projected by any specific culture.[6]

Gospel

Bridging the first two worlds into a paradigmatic relationship within itself, the gospel allows God’s Word to speak through first a Christological framework of authority as Hunsberger states, “It summons to allegiance and decision. (It makes a claim.) It presupposes a public horizon and universal scope. (It presents itself as world news.) It regards death and resurrection as paradigmatic. (It opens up a way.)[7]

Paul’s words in Philippians 2 come to mind as he writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.[8] We must ask ourselves where we see the text as a whole being enfleshed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. By this understanding we can move towards an understanding of Missiology.

Missiology is a recognition to the “sentness” each community and person has as being part of the mission of God in a particular place and a particular time. Brownson articulates that, “the gospel functions to bring about a fundamental transformation in a way people in a specific situation interpret the Christian tradition, understand themselves, and situate themselves in the world as a whole.[9] We must be drawn to action by the scripture as we see God’s desire for His people and world. As Jesus calls us, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.[10]

[1] Miroslav Volf, Captive to the Word: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 16.

[2] Mark Love, “Missional Interpretation: The Encounter of a Holy God through a Living Text,” (Paper presented at Rochester College, Rochester, MI., 5.

[3] James V. Brownson, Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998), 21.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Michael W. Goheen, A Light To The Nations: The Missional Church And The Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 6.

[6] James V. Brownson, Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998), 22-23.

[7] George R. Hunsberger, “Proposal for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation,”, 317.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Php 2:5). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[9] James V. Brownson, Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998), 54.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Mt 6:33). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

A Missional Hermeneutic Pt. #2 ~ Foundations of Missional Artistry: Four Approaches to a Hermeneutical Practice

Keys to UnderstandingIn his ‘Proposal for a Missional Hermeneutic’ George Hunsberger present four streams of thought in a missional approach to hermeneutics. Each one holds to a vital emphases or point to finding meaning in the scriptures but may fall short in other areas of interpretation.

The first approach to defining a hermeneutic focuses on the writing of scripture as a whole collected work, while finding the central understanding on the story or mission of God throughout the completed text. Speaking from Christopher Wright’s approach, Hunsberger states that, “taken as a canonical whole, the Bible, he says, tells the story of God’s mission in and for the whole world, and with it the story of the people of God whom God has called and sent to be implicated in that mission.[1]

In this view, the biblical text as a whole is viewed as a narrative, which does not seem to leave much room for the expression of cultural metaphorical expression. Historically we know also that many of the first century Christians and their community’s did not have access to the whole of Christian scriptures as we find today in the canonized Bible. Do we then assume that they did not know or truly understand the Word of God? I do not think we can make that assessment.

Still, this view points us to the importance of recognizing the metanarrative voice to which scripture can speak to us. This of course extends into the greater picture of today as we call in our own narratives and ask where is God in the bigger picture.

The second approach Hunsberger identifies is the missional purpose of the writings of scripture. This is an approach that no doubt focuses out of Paul’s words to Timothy in saying, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.[2] Quoting Darrell Guder as one of the main proponents, Hunsberger states, “The New Testament writings have as their purpose to equip the churches for witness.[3]

I would agree that the scriptures were written for equipping in service and mission however, we cannot dismiss their intrinsic value in the workings of the redemption and sanctification of the inner self we all are in search of. The power of transformation to which God speaks through the scriptures is one not just for the non-believer but for the believer taking part in it’s reading also!

Thirdly, Hunsberger distinguishes a hermeneutic stream in the missional locatedness of the reader. Speaking from the viewpoint of Michael Barram he describes it as, “the claim that ‘Christian congregations caught up in the missio Dei read the Bible from a social location characterized by mission’”[4]

Without a doubt, we must allow the scriptures to speak to us through the practice of community. The ecclesia in which the gospel speaks, shapes the enfleshing acts to which God’s Word molds people into the mission to which he has called them. And yet, we cannot dismiss the individual relationship each person has with his Word also. Just as God calls community to be in mission, he also calls each individual to be on mission and as such the scriptures continue to have a validity in the missional locatedness of every believer. As Alan Hirsch has pointed out, “Every church is a church planting church. Every believer is a church planter.[5]

The forth and last hermeneutic that Hunsberger identifies is in the missional engagement with cultures. This is largely reflected in James Brownson’s work as Hunsberger describes, “his model focuses on what is taking place in the missional moment as biblical writers address the people of their own times and places in terms of the received religious tradition.[6]

Mark Love sees this approach as offering a,

hermeneutical shift that does not begin with the relationship of the reader and the text, but that begins instead with the relationship between God and the biblical texts as we find them.[7] This is a shift that, “does not begin with the relationship of the reader and the text, but that begins instead with the relationship between God and the biblical texts as we find them… It’s not just the case that we read these texts. It is possible that these active texts can read us and re-describe our worlds.[8]

With this understanding, in approaching our own practice of reading scripture we should always begin with the question of, “In what way does this reveal the identity and character of God?” Followed by the secondary reflection of, “How does this revelation of God’s identity shape our understanding and call us into the creation of the world around us?

It is from these approaches that I have reflected on my own approach to hermeneutics and seen how the three worlds of Context, Culture, and the Gospel have converged to allow God’s Word to speak into life. It is these thoughts to which I will turn to in my next post.

“So, now we have a holy God and a living text, and these features should determine how the text performs among us. It would be a violation of both a holy God and a living text to treat the text as a lifeless object, or simply as a container for meanings that we can excise through the surgical use of critical approaches. Missional hermeneutics, or biblical hermeneutics in general, should proceed on the notion that these living texts generate meanings. It is not just that we read these texts. It is possible that these active texts can read us and re-describe our worlds” ~ Mark Love in ‘Missional Interpretation: The Encounter of a Holy God through a Living Text

[1] George R. Hunsberger, “Proposal for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation,”, 311.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (2 Ti 3:16–17). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] George R. Hunsberger, “Proposal for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation,”, 313.

[4] Ibid., 314.

[5] Alan Hirsch, “Alan Hirsch: Every Believer a Church Planter”, Verge Network, Web, (, 2011). http://vimeo.com/14626641

[6] George R. Hunsberger, “Proposal for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation,”, 316-317.

[7] Mark Love, “Missional Interpretation: The Encounter of a Holy God through a Living Text,” (Paper presented at Rochester College, Rochester, MI., 3.

[8] Ibid., 3-4.