Ortberg Sharpens and Freshens Jesus

John Ortberg.: Who is this man?Ortberg Sharpens and Freshens Jesus

John Ortberg.  2012.  Who Is This Man?  Unpredictable Impact of an Inescapable Jesus.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

John Ortberg’s new book, Who Is This Man?, is a biography focused on the unexpected influence Jesus has on the many spheres of our lives. Ortberg writes:

“After his disappearance from earth, the days of his unusual influence began.  That influence is what this book is about…Normally when someone dies, their impact on the world immediately begins to recede…Jesus’ impact was greater a hundred years after his death than during his life…after two thousand years he has more followers in more places than ever.” (11).

Talk about influence. Most of us would be happy if our parents and/or kids listened to us.

Details, Details

Ortberg has an eye for details and for things contrary to expectations, either today or in ancient times. For example, in evaluating Jesus as a leader, he outlines his strategy for influencing people.  Paraphrasing a pep talk by Jesus for the disciples, he writes:

“Here’s our strategy. We have no money, no clout, no status, no buildings, no soldiers…We will tell  them [Jewish and Romans leaders, Zealots, collaborators, Essenes] all that they are on the wrong track…When they hate us—and a lot of them will…we won’t fight back, we won’t run away, and we won’t give in.  We will just keep loving them…That’s my strategy.” (107)

Huh?  Who would have thought that a group using this strategy would even survive the first century, let alone influence anyone.

Background

John Ortberg[1] is the pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park[2], California which is part of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), a new denomination formed in 2012[3].  According to the foreword written Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, this book started out as sermon series.  The book is written in 15 chapters, including:

  1. The Man Who Won’t Go Away,
  2. The Collapse of Dignity,
  3. A Revolution in Humanity,
  4. What Does a Woman Want?
  5. An Undistinguished Visiting Scholar,
  6. Jesus Was Not a Great Man,
  7. Help Your Friends, Punish Your Enemies,
  8. There Are Things That Are Not Caesar’s,
  9. The Good Life Versus The Good Person,
  10. Why It’s a Small World After All,
  11. The Truly Old-Fashioned Marriage,
  12. Without Parallel in the Entire History of Art,
  13. Friday,
  14. Saturday, and
  15. Sunday (5).

These chapters are preceded by a foreword and acknowledgments, and followed by an epilogue and references.  I was first exposed this this material in a men’s group discussion where we viewed the DVD.  There is also a separate study guide.

Ortberg is Well Rounded

Ortberg is surprisingly well read drawing on details from a range of resources ancient and modern[4].  For example, describing a bit of his own background from a psychologist’s perspective he writes:

“The quickest and most basic mental health assessment checks to see if people are ‘oriented times three’:  whether they know who they are, where they are, and what day it is.  I was given the name of Jesus’ friend John; I live in the Bay area named for Jesus’ friend Francis; I was born 1,957 years after Jesus. How could orientation depend so heavily on one life?” (11)

He observes that each of his 3 orientations (who, where, and when) were influenced directly by Jesus.  Pretty good influence for someone who lived 2,000 years ago!

Holy Saturday

One of the chapters that impressed me the most was the chapter called: Saturday.  Saturday after Good Friday and before Easter is starting to be celebrated as a religious holiday in itself—I often wondered why. Ortberg describes these 3 days as a typical 3-day story with a specific form: day 1 starts with trouble; day 2 there is nothing; and day 3 comes deliverance[5]. The problem with day 2 is that you do not know if day 3 is coming—faith is required. Saturday is the only day in 2,000 years when not a single person on earth believed that Jesus was alive. It’s only on the third day that you know you are in a 3-day story! (175-177) Next year I think that I will look for a Saturday service to attend.

Assessment

John Ortberg’s book, Who Is This Man?, offers a fresh description of Jesus, his thinking, and his life. Most Christians today have heard too many bland accounts of Jesus for our own good—so much so that we have trouble hearing God’s voice in these accounts. Ortberg’s insights come in explaining Jesus’ context so artfully that Jesus’ radical contribution is more obvious—Jesus steps out of the picture frame into the room with us. This is the kind of book that, after reading a couple chapters, you will want to buy copies for your family and friends.  In other words, drop what you are doing and read this book.

[1]http://www.JohnOrtberg.com

[2]http://mppc.org

[3]http://eco-pres.org

[4]As a writer and publisher, I immediately picked up on the absence of footnotes in this book.  References are given in the back of the book sequenced by chapter.  However, there are no footnotes or endnotes indicated in the text itself. Actually, I liked this style of referencing because the text flows more naturally with fewer distractions.

[5] Other 3-days stories that he mentions are:  Abraham (Gen 22:4), Joseph (Gen 42:17-18), Rahab (Jos 2:16), and Esther (Est 4:16).

 

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Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I

Christ and Culture RevisitedD.A. Carson. 2008. Christ & Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For about my first 3 years of college, I never went to church voluntarily. In my senior year of high school, the session had let our youth director go and I felt betrayed and angry. Instead of enjoying my senior year in youth group, the group disappeared overnight and I graduated a fairly isolated and lonely teen. Later, I learned that the youth director had been discovered to be lesbian; another prominent member of the congregation (who I also knew well) was charged with pediphia about the same time. Membership plunged after that point. The church building was sold in 2014. After journeying through some dark times, I able to make peace with God after I realized that the people around me, not God, had been responsible for my pain—evidence that we live in a toxic culture.

Introduction

In his book, Christ & Culture Revisited, Carson (viii) starts his preface observing that: “even since Pentecost Christians have had to think through the nature of their relationships with others.” His other three reasons for writing have a more professional focus—the need for an international perspective on culture, Niebuhr was the focus of his seminary discussion group, and an invitation to lecture in Paris [1] on the subject (ix-x). Still, the preface to his paperback edition provides more insight into his motivation. He writes (vi): “The famous Niebuhr typology…drives us toward mutually exclusive choices we should not be making”. Ideas matter. I tell my kids—if you want others to take you seriously, first take yourself seriously. Carson is a serious thinker and a serious writer.

Background and Organization

D.A. Carson is a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield just outside Chicago in Illinois. His book cover is a painting, The Last Supper by Conrad Romyn. He writes in 6 chapters:

1. How to Thinking about Culture: Reminding Ourselves of Niebuhr;
2. Niebuhr Revised: The Impact of Biblical Theology;
3. Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism;
4. Secularism, Democracy, Freedom, and Power;
5. Church and State; and
6. On Disputed Agendas, Frustrated Utopias, and Ongoing Tensions (v).

An important observation from this list of chapter titles is that Carson focuses on Niebuhr primarily in the first two chapters. Throughout the remainder of the book, he looks beyond Niebuhr to take a fresh look at the relationship of Christ and culture.

Carson’s Interpretation of Niebuhr

Carson starts his analysis of Niebuhr with the observation that: “If he [Niebuhr] is going to talk about ‘Christ and culture’, Niebuhr must provide reasonably clear definitions of both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’” (9). This task proves harder than initially meets the eye because of a clear diversity of opinion about the information content of both terms.

In discussing Niebuhr’s definition of “Christ”, Carson cites Niebuhr saying: “If we cannot say anything adequately, we can say some things inadequately” and cannot “limit oneself to the forms of confessional Christianity that explicitly and self-consciously try to live under the authority of Scripture” (10). Hmm.

As Carson observes, Niebuhr’s definition of culture proves no more easily defined as “Niebuhr wants to avoid the technical debates of anthropologists.” (11) Carson then opines that “Niebuhr’s definition of culture embraces ‘ideas’ and ‘beliefs’ as well as customs, inherited artifacts, and the life.” (12)

Having demonstrated that Niebuhr’s definitions of both “Christ” and “culture” are oblique, offers an insightful interpretation: “Niebuhr is not so much talking about the relationship between Christ and culture, as between two sources of authority as they compete within the culture.” (12)[2] Christ as an authority competes with other authorities in society today and in the past who define culture. This interpretation is interesting because it is at least coherent offering an apples-to-apples comparison [3].

Because Carson’s interpretation of Niebuhr hangs on competing authorities, he needs a concrete set of ideas to characterize Christ’s role in interacting with culture. This he finds in the great turning points in salvation history (67) which then, in turn, define Christ’s contribution. In this latter respect, Carson focuses on Jesus’ words: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25 ESV)[4] Carson notes that God as creator of the heaven and earth abides no competitors [5] so Jesus is clearly asserting authority over culture (56-57).

Assessment

A complete review of Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited would require almost as much study and ink as his review of Niebuhr. For this reason, I have broken this review into 2 parts.  In part 1, I note that Carson’s careful review of Niebuhr’s pays homage to Niebuhr even while making the limitations of his classification scheme (typology) painfully clear [6]. In part 2, I examine Carson’s exploration after Niebuhr.  Carson is a good read and worthy of detailed study. I learned a lot—perhaps you will too.

Footnotes

[1] This interpretation is insightful because truly innovative thinkers, like Niebuhr, do not have the benefit of refined thinking when they express themselves—they define entirely new thought patterns—and their expressions are invariably enigmatic. While they know what they mean, their words only partially express their underlying thinking.

[2] I find it the height of irony that Carson should lecture in Paris in French on a book about culture both proclaiming the obsolescence of postmodernism (vi-vii) and an end to the “high culture” critique implicit in Niebuhr (1-2).  I wish that I could have been there!

[3] The other apples-to-apples comparison option would be to compare Christian and pagan cultures—a perilous task.

[4] Also Matt 22:21 and Mark 12:17.

[5] See Gen 1:1 and Exod 20:3-5. Culture is a perfectly good idol for many people which has direct bearing on Jesus’ words when he points to a coin with a picture of Caesar (Luke 20:24). A good Jew in Jesus’ day would refuse to carry a denarius which is why, for example, Jesus had to ask for one.

[6] My own review is at: Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Po).

REFERENCES

Richard Niebuhr. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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1 Corinthians 11: Identity and Unity in Christ

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (v 1).

One of the greatest challenges of our times is to find our identity in Christ, solely in Christ.  Many other voices cry to be heard; sometimes demanding total allegiance without warrant.  Whenever these voices win, we find ourselves denying Christ in some aspect of our lives and end up practicing idolatry.  The Apostle Paul cautions us to imitate him as he imitates Christ (v 1).

In chapter 11, Paul focuses on two areas of contentious debate in the church in Corinth (and our own churches):  gender (vv 3-16) and class (vv 20-34) relationships within the church.  In beginning to discuss these verses, it is helpful to remember that Paul has repeatedly emphasized our unity in Christ:  There is neither Jew nor Greek [cultural equality], there is neither slave nor free [class equality], there is no male and female [gender equality], for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 ESV).  The questions at hand explore how to maintain order and respect within a context of our equality before God.

The social context of Paul’s comments on gender is frankly not well understood and confusion about how to translate Paul’s instructions has led to conflicting advice followed by different churches and denominations.  The common lectionary simply skips over these verses.  Notwithstanding, Hays[1] (183) notes 4 points about gender relationship which are well-understood:

  1. Paul endorses the freedom of women to pray and prophesy in the assembly; the only question is what sort of headdress is appropriate…
  2. The patriarchal order of verses 3 and 7-9 is set in counterpoint with a vision of mutual interdependence of men and women…
  3. The passage does not require subordination of women…but a symbolic distinction between the sexes.
  4. The immediate concern of the passage is for the Corinthians to avoid bringing shame on the community.

Paul’s more lengthy discourse on the relationship between husbands and wives in Ephesians 4:22-33 basically prescribes men to love their wives and women to respect their husbands in a context of equality before God.  What this means in the context of communal worship is basically that neither party should flaunt their independence or sexuality in dress or conduct in a manner that would embarrass the other or the community.  Obviously, a lot more could be said about this subject.

Paul’s comments about classism in the church’s celebration of communion probably come as a surprise to those accustomed to reading this passage causally.  This is because the communion practice in serving communion is to skip over the context of Paul’s comments which have 4 parts:

  1. Paul observes divisions and factions in the church (vv 13-19);
  2. Paul accuses the Corinthians of not celebrating communion properly because some eat and some go hungry;  some get drunk and some have nothing (vv 20-22);
  3. The words of institution (vv 23-26); and
  4. Warning about improper celebration of communion (vv 27-34).

The key verse here is: For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (v 29).  What does it mean to discern the body?  At a minimum it means that communion is taken together; more importantly, it means that the celebrant needs to consider the needs of the community (unity and equality) before taking part in communion—communion is a communal event.

If our identity is in anything other than Christ (culture, class, gender, race, and so on), then taking part in communion invites God’s judgment.  When we remember Christ, we should not have other things in our minds or on our hearts.

Footnotes

[1] Richard B. Hays. 2011.  Interpretation:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

Questions

  1. How was your week? Did something in particular?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 10?
  3. Does verse 1 fit better with chapter 10 or 11? Why?
  4. What is the focus and point of imitating Paul? (v 1)
  5. What is ironic in Paul’s statement in verse 2?
  6. Why might verse 3 be controversial? What is Paul’s point?
  7. Why is Paul interested in head coverings? (vv 3-7) Should we be concerned?  What is the point here?
  8. What is Paul point of reference in making comments in verses 8-12? (Genesis 3:7, 18-25)  Does birth order matter to us?  Did it matter in Paul’s day?  Why?
  9. Why is Paul concerned about hair length and covering? (vv 13-15)  Does it matter today?
  10. Is your answer to question 9 affected by verse 16 or does verse 16 belong with what follows?
  11. Are the divisions that Paul mentioned in verses 18-19 because of hair, coverings, or communion (vv 20-22?
  12. How are the Words of Institution for communion (vv 23-26) affected by the context before and after?
  13. What is Paul’s warning in verses 27-32? In particular, what does the expression—without discerning the body—mean?
  14. What does Paul recommend in verses 33-34? Why? Is this all about food and drink?

1 Corinthians 11: Identity and Unity in Christ

First Corinthians 12

First Corinthians 10

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Christ and Culture

Christ_culture_110132013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit speaks Gospel into culture.   And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to peak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4 ESV).  Here the Holy Spirit communicates the Gospel among all people groups through languages that previously separated us under the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:7).  Language marks culture.  Much like Pentecost is God’s antidote to Babel, the Gospel is an antidote to culture.

To see this, define culture as the history of our collective decisions[1].  If we consistently made rational decisions based on complete information and an objective decision process, then cultural differences would not exist because we would all act the same.  We are not the same because we make poor decisions and base those decisions on prior experiences.  Consequently, as time passes our societal laws, customs, values, and morals (the lessons learned from our collective history) grow more and more unique.  And this uniqueness separates us from one another.

Because resources are limited and contested, bad decisions, which are more costly than good decisions, leave a larger cultural imprint.  Bad habits trump good ones.  Because pain screams while God whispers, culture can seem like the history of collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain.  Cultural isolation temporarily eases our pain as we look inward, but wounds not cleaned fester.  When the church acts as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, it amplifies God’s voice and speaks Gospel into the context of cultural pain[2].

Culture is to groups what personality is to individuals.  Personality is defined in habitual behavior.  When we tell our personal stories, these stories consist mostly of recounting our wounds, obsessions, injustices, and learning experiences.  It is the rare individual blessed only to recount mountain top experiences.  The ministries of presence, fellowship, and care allow us to amplify God’s voice, like the church more generally, in personal reflection.

What does the Gospel have to do with culture?  If culture is primarily the history of our collective mistakes, griefs, shame, pains, and injustices—in a word, sin, then confession and forgiveness of sin are redemptive and transformative.  Christ redeems us from the guilt of sin and the Holy Spirit transforms our lives abating sin’s pollution.  Our worldly cultures are sanctified.  So Apostle Paul can write:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).   When the church speaks Gospel into culture, it becomes an instrument of Pentecost.

What if we cling to worldly cultures rather than sanctify them?  In effect, we are arguing that our personal and collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain count for more than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  We are relishing our wounds or hiding behind them rather than submitting them to Christ.  Alternatively, Christ is seen as only human, but not divine.  When Paul prays for relief from a personal affliction, God responds:  My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  When we hold worldly cultures close to our hearts, we frustrate Christ’s work of sanctification, grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and yield to the itchy ears rather than proclaim the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:3).

What if we become prodigals—insisting on our inheritance without God’s truth and substituting worldly cultures for Christ and His sacrifice?  Think here of overtly idolatrous cultures, such as atheism or hedonism[3].  This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:24 when he talks about God giving them over to their shameful desires.  In this context, Paul takes up the mantle of a covenant lawsuit prophet evoking covenantal curses.  Rejecting the new covenant in Christ evokes the curse of law—reaping what we sow[4].  The Good News is that in Jesus Christ prodigals who return home and repent can be forgiven—not getting what we deserve.  The Apostle John writes:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

At Pentecost we remember that Christ, not culture, is our true shelter from the storm.


[1]Jonathan Edwards (Freedom of the Will (1754). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press, 2009, p. 38) employs a similar starting point (a recursive decision process) in setting up a discussion of free will.

[2]Contextualization is actively studied in missionary circles.  For example, see,: James E. Plueddemann.  Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 2009.

[3]Some view modernism from this perspective.  Nikita Khrushchev once said:   Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Gagarin).  Khrushchev apparently believed that the USSR had constructed a Tower of Babel.

[4]This is more than just a Pauline rant. The hermeneutic of the prodigal in Romans allows Paul to create space for the redemption of Jews who have rejected Christ (Romans 11:11).  Pentecost redeems worldly cultures, even Jewish culture.  Luke (12:10) and Mark (3:29) are less gracious and consider blaspheming the Holy Spirit (rejecting salvation through Christ) unforgiveable.

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Graham Shares Gospel; Speaks about Judgment

BillyGraham_10212013Billy Graham.  2013.  The Reason for My Hope:  Salvation.  Nashville:  W. Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson).

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Billy Graham will celebrate his 95th birthday on November 7, 2013 with a new campaign called:  My Hope with Billy Graham (http://bit.ly/1cPVrOx).  Graham’s new book, The Reason for My Hope, was released on October 15th in anticipation of this campaign.  He writes to summarize the Good News that he preached during his ministry (vii).

I have read Graham since I learned to read (http://bit.ly/19pe0Yp) so I was anxious to see his latest book.

Graham organized his book into eight chapters.  The chapter titles are instructive because each chapter is well-named and self-contained.  The titles are:  Rescued for Something, The Great Redemption, Sin is In, The Price of Victory, Where is Jesus?, Defining Christianity in a Designer World, No Hope of Happy Hour in Hell, and He is Coming Back.  Before these eight chapters is an introduction focused on hope and after them is an afterword, Living Life with Hope.  The afterword talks about how to find Christ in six steps and includes a believer’s prayer.

Graham’s writing style is distinctive.  As a master of collage, Graham reads the times through highly personal stories of individuals that are like Norman Rockwell paintings that spring to life.  In chapter one, for example, Graham takes us aboard the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, as it runs aground off the Italian coast.  In an age of seemingly miraculous technology, Graham questions how the crew could make such simple mistakes and, having made them, could be so indifferent to the safety of passengers under their care (11).  As the chapter draws to a close, Graham observes:  when we are rescued from something, we also saved for something.  In the words of former president, Ronald Reagan, after the assassination attempt on his life—I believe God spared me for a purpose (12).  Indeed.  We yearn to learn that purpose.

Graham’s  comments about the dark side of postmodern culture are particularly pointed.  Popular music, art, and film are infatuated with evil.  The increasingly frequent occurrence of mass shootings, such as during the 2012  Dark Knight showing in Aurora, Colorado, almost panders to this infatuation (158).  If God was willing to flood the earth in the time of Noah, exactly how can this generation avoid judgment when Christ returns? (168).  In some sense, we are judged by our own indifference.  Graham helps us taste, touch, and see our need for salvation in each of these accounts.

Part of the My Hope with Billy Graham campaign is to teach Christians how to assist seekers in coming to faith.  Graham’s six steps to finding Christ include a series of musts–[you must] Be convinced that you need him, Understand the message of the cross, Count the cost, Confess Jesus Christ as Lord of your life, Be willing for God to change your life, and Desire nourishment from God (170-182).   In the words of the Apostle Paul:  everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13 ESV).

To understand Graham’s success as a writer and as an evangelist, one needs to understand that he was one of the first evangelists to understand how truly to engage the culture and present the Gospel with multi-media.  His use of collage in writing, for example, shares a lot in common with the use of vignettes in a mini-series.  Collage appears simple, but its construction is highly complex.

Graham’s writing is very engaging–The Reason for My Hope is classic Graham.  I look forward to hearing more about it on November 7.

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