The Strangeness of the Gospel

A friend of mine, Clint Wilson, shared an excerpt from Michael F. Bird’s college textbook Introducing Paul  a while ago and I thought it was very profound.  It concerns the strangeness of Paul’s claims to first-century hearers. We would all do well to remember how unusual the claims concerning Christ are. It is easy for us this side of 2000 years of Christian history to see the Christian claims as “old hat.” Bird writes:

Imagine you are walking through your local university or college and hear in the quad an elderly man from South America telling people loudly about God’s love and salvation. He announces the ‘good news’ of Carlos Hernandez. He recounts how Carlos was a Peruvian peasant attested by man mighty deeds of power and miracles and who proclaimed the end of the world. But the chief men in the city of Lima feared his popularity with the peasant class, falsely accused him of being an Al-Qaeda terrorist and had him killed by electrocution. But a week later, this Carlos was raised from the dead and was seen by several American tourists. Then the man declares that ‘this Carlos was electrocuted for your sins and salvation is found through faith in him’. And then, to make matters worse he starts singing:

Carlos was there on that horrible chair

They tied him down with bolts and then zapped him with 40,000 volts

It was for you our saviour fried and died

Despite the fact that his chair caught on fire, this one is God’s true Messiah

The wisdom of the world has been refuted because Carlos was electrocuted

He is my saviour and my lamp, because he absorbed every deadly amp

Now I know that God does care, ’cause he sent Carlos Hernandez to the electric chair.

I like the way this short excerpt gets us to reorient our thinking about the Gospel.  It has never been some commonplace event, a blip on the radar of human history.  It was something profoundly strange and unheard of….God becoming man and dying on a cross?  What kind of God is that?  And yet that is exactly what we proclaim.  The death and resurrection of Jesus invokes two seeming absurdities:  the infinite entering a finite world and the suffering of a deity.  This is the message that Christians proclaim unabashedly.  An incomprehensible movement of God that sends many rational minds recoiling in horror.  Yet, it is not without rationale.  It is a statement about the brokeness of people living in an absurd world, a mad world as one songwriter poignantly puts it.  The absurdity of evil demands an equally absurd reality: a suffering God.   A profound and indescribable truth bound up in human frailty; hanging on a Roman execution device the likes of which only a sociopath could conceive.  In this event, the sins of the world collide with the God of love and they don’t stand a chance.  The infinite God bears our pain in Himself.  A beautiful truth, embodied in Jesus, in whom we place our hope.  As the great Athanasius puts it, He was made man, that we might be made God.  Food for thought as we anticipate Good Friday, commemorating Jesus’ death on the cross.

Rob Bell Setting the Record Straight


Sources of Authority

 I read a good article in a book called Christianity in Jewish Terms. The author of the article, Miachael A. Signer did a good job of summarizing quite succinctly the differences that result from the various traditions of Christianity and Judaism.  Jewish interpretation is informed by the TaNaCh (Torah, Nevi’im-the prophets, and Ketuvim-the writings) as well as Oral Torah, the Mishnah which makes up the Talmud, their Scriptures and interpretation of Scriptures.  Christians view the Bible as the Old and New Testaments which consist of Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim but do not include the Oral Torah.  Thus, a split occurs based on sources of authority for Christian and Jewish communities.  Within the Christian community there are further divisions related to Scripture, tradition and theology.  Catholics and Protestants disagree on what constitutes Scripture.  Catholics include additional books as canonical, what Protestants call the Apocrypha.  Orthodox Christians view tradition as encompassing the writings of the church fathers and the decisions of the councils.  Catholics accept these along with believing the tradition is continued through the teaching office of the church (the Magisterium) in concert with theologians.  For Protestants, interpretation of Scripture is influenced for some in the mainline by church confessions, while many restrict authority to simply the text of the Bible itself, ipsissima verba, the words of God.  Theology is utilized in various ways by these three traditions.  The use of reason and philosophical method in theology is utilized by Catholics in combination with church fathers, church councils and papal documents.   Orthodox theology relies primarily on the early church fathers.  Protestants focus mostly upon Scriptural exegesis and reasoned philosophical methods.  With all these various approaches and sources of authority helping combine to provide interpretation of Scripture and in fact determine what is Scripture, it is no small wonder that interpretation varies so widely and simplistic views of all religions teaching the same thing dissolve into the complex realities of faith traditions.