Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Gospel, Repentance and the Kingdom of God

Faith, salvation, gospel, repentance and the kingdom of God are words used throughout the New Testament. They all hold significant meaning within Christian history and those that followed Christ. Over time, these words and the meanings thereof have often been shaped by the culture they found themselves lodged in. Though this may not always serve to be a huge detraction from the original meaning intended, it nonetheless often subtracts from the overarching messages and implications that these words originally carried.

Each of these words mentioned above, have an original context. A context surrounded with real life realities, cultures, circumstances and images that were intimately united to the words themselves. Whenever there is a cultural and contextual gap from the one it was once delivered in, there are frequently missing components to the bigger picture - the meta-narrative in which they find themselves in.

The last several days we have been meandering about what "church is" and "what is the gospel". We have concluded that much of our current understanding is the byproduct of our cultural context and not necessarily that of biblical precedence. This doesn't in and of itself make our understandings anti-biblical, but it does warrant ongoing reflection and consideration.

When a Jew living in the First Century heard the word "gospel," what was their understanding? What about the word "repentance"? Was their initial mental image that of an altar at the front of a church? Was it even a religious (as we know it) image that moved to their frontal cortex? Or, was a First Century Jew's first image of "repentance" that of a political and revolutionary nature? Or, consider the "kingdom." I've never lived in a land where there was a king. Are the implications of this word greater than my King Arthur ideology?

Jesus was a real person. He lived in a real place. He was surrounded by very specific cultural influences. The time and culture in which He lived very much influenced what words, images and stories He choose to utilize while communicating. We must never forget this. Therefore, it would seem, that for us to gain a better - more complete understanding of the message(s) He communicated, most notably the "Gospel," it would serve us well to first ask ourselves:
  • How did the first hearers of these stories understand and interpret them?

  • What cultural and contextual elements is the author leaning on to communicate and why? And, so forth.

Yet, for most of us, it is a challenge to know which archives of historical data to peruse through to begin our search of a grander historical and cultural understanding of the First Century, thus the words that Jesus spoke. Last summer I facilitated a learning environment with about 25 people, where we tracked through about 150 years of history. Our primary focus of study was 50 years before Jesus was born to about 50 years into the history of the early church. We we're looking specifically for the historical, cultural, social, political and spiritual backdrops of the life and message of Jesus. In preparation for this learning environment I spent quite a bit of time rummaging, searching, researching, reading, reading, and some more reading.

Throughout the conversation I was often asked as we neared the end of our 16 week study, which books and resources would be helpful for continued study and understanding. It would have been ideal to have a piece of scholarly, thorough, and yet not-too-laborious to navigate through that would enable one to gain an accurate big picture perspective. I was hard pressed to find ONE. I gave out a list of recommends, but there was recently a book published by a friend of mine that, had it been in released last summer, would have definitely made it to the top of the recommended list.

The Book is Static: Tune Out The "Christian" Noise And Experience The Real Message Of Jesus by Ron Martoia.

takes a fresh look at such biblical terms as "salvation, kingdom, repentance and gospel." The books publisher, Tyndale House, summarizes the book by saying:
"Words communicate. Christians often use words to communicate to others; however, these words aren’t understood by many of those outside the church. We can be so absorbed in our 'christianese' that we don’t realize others don’t understand the jargon and cannot figure out what it is we mean by what we are saying. Static readers will become aware of what we are saying so we can re-focus our thinking to communicate clearly to those outside the church."
Tyndale House is right in what they say, however I think they don't say enough. It is a serious issue that we use "words" that individuals "outside the church" don't understand without our knowing. But I think there is another issue, if not even more serious than the former and that is that we often use "words" inside the church, that people inside the church don't understand, but because they've heard these words so often, they've become conditioned by familiarity to think they know the meaning, without fully understanding -- and without knowing that they don't know.

One of the greatest tragedies
of self-deception
is to not know something
to not know that
you don't know it.

Ron Martoia in his book Static does an awesome job at trimming away unnecessary baggage, while presenting a clear and easily readable picture of the words, their original context, theological implications and how we can effectively communicate them in the world we find ourselves.

Additional Recommended Reading in this genre:

Historical & Political Climate
  • Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Order by Richard A. Horsley
  • Desire for the Everlasting Hills by Thomas Cahill
  • Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelly
  • The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity by James S. Jeffers

Jewish Cultural Context of the First Century

  • Sketches of Jewish Social Life by Alfred Edersheim
  • As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg
  • Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell
  • Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind by Barbara Bowen
  • The Bible Lives Today by Barbara Bowen*
  • Through Bowen Museum with Bible in Hand by Barbara Bowen*
    *Barbara Bowen Books are hard to find

The Person & Message of Jesus

  • The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is by N.T. Wright
  • Jesus & the Victory of God; The Resurrection of the Son of God; and The New testament & the People of God by N.T. Wright - (These three are a BIT more academic in nature).
  • The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others by Scot McKnight
  • Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion in the Gospels by Scot McKnight
  • The Secret Message of Jesus by Brain McLaren
  • The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey
  • God Came Near by Max Lucado
  • Finding the Lost Cultural Keys to Luke 15 by Kenneth Bailey
  • Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes by Kenneth Bailey
  • The Cross & the Prodigal by Kenneth Bailey

Engaging the Scripture
  • Eat this Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading by Euguene
  • The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story
    by Craig G. Bartholomew & Michael W. Goheen
  • God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible by Vaughan Roberts
  • The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays


Jeremy said...

I agree completely with this post. to properly understand something in the Bible (or, I would assert, any other ancient text), we must have a grasp of the context in which it was written. I know that part of my struggle with things like "gospel" and such are based on a lack of knowledge in this ares. But, I also know, and I am sure others can relate, that I am also somewhat scared to venture into this area of study. Why? Because it seems dangerous.

It's not that understanding what Peter meant when he referred to women as "weaker" undermines things, but it adds layers to our understanding. And sometimes, when we add layers, it causes some shaking. That's what seems so dangerous: the shaking.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Jeremy that you mentioned the reference on women as "weaker" and how it may add layers to our understanding. I like how you said the layers cause shaking. I sense that God is shaking all of us.

The role of women in the church is vital/essential and shifting and this leads to one thing I wanted to talk about, Jerrell, concerning what you mentioned on "spiritual abuse". I believe women are more often the targets of "spiritual abuse". Even in Jesus day, He was stopping for them, defending them in front of religious leaders and others. In our modern day church culture religious leaders are still predominatly male, yet women continue to play a vital role in the formation of the church. I realize that women are leading and having more and more of a voice, however, in the case of many churches like ours I have noticed that when someone needs to voice or concern, confront an issue or bring forth any kind of petition, they must meet with a male office holder. Men are not only making the decisions, but they are communicating with the community. God positions men like yourself to articulate the things of God and it is a vital role.

Often men are more logical so when a woman comes forward from the church community with something to say is it not "nicely stated" or mannerable or articulate, or logical and it involved big emotions or spaghetti-like thoughts that are all connected
some men shut down. Men are shaken and tend to shut down especially if a woman is confronting them about a problem she has with them specifically. Few women speak diplomatically all the time, I think.

You have a few times commented on how I have "nicely stated" things.
If things are not nicely stated can weaker voices still be heard and how often or in what context? Like your analogy, I've known a few to get burned behind the scenes, be abused, but not come back for another cup of coffee.

I enjoy conversing with you b/c you have been kind concerning these topics, more kindness is needed.

How should one confront religious sin?

By the way, I still intend to converse more with you on my own heart.


Jerrell Jobe said...


How true! We love certainty.We like the "evidence that demands a verdict." We like it when all of our theological puzzle pieces are fitted nicely together just like the picture on the front of the box of faith.

Yet, over the course of our journey with God - we sometimes see that they very thing we 'thought' we were certain of - wasn't all that accurate after all. (Especially when that thought, belief, etc was the byproduct of a cultural lens, personal bias, or skewed experience).

The journey can be a bit unsettling. For me (at least most of the time) the process of deconstruction/reconstruction, even shaking adds a much needed component to my walk with God. It heightens my dependence, trust, and child-like discovery of the Infinite God...

Jerrell Jobe said...

How’s that for a “spaghetti-like” tangent?

Though I’m still processing this, I typically think of “spiritual abuse” in more isolated situations, generally of in a relational context of a smaller nature, though there it may apply to a large group as well. Therefore, I don’t know if I would categorize the experience of women within the church generally as “spiritual abuse.” I would, however, concur that historically, though women have played an intricate part of the church, have at times experienced a good deal of “oppression,” as have other groups of people as well. An unfortunate reality and an issue that could merit several post in and of itself… So for now we’ll leave it at that… Primarily because to minimize the response and dealing with the subject in a trimmed down “comment response” may serve more to propagate the very thing were talking about rather than giving it due space, place and thought. However, if you want to see a woman who can flat-out teach the word, you should check out Angela Roger’s Wednesday night class on the Book of Hebrews “Rudders, Anchors & the North Star: Navigating Faith with the Book of Hebrews.”

Perhaps I misrepresented myself by saying “Nicely stated.” That was simply my feeble attempts to communicate: that was a great thought, insight or perspective that provokes and moves the conversation along in a productive manner… Especially given that your (A1’s) comments are usually several emotionally-charged-logically-written thoughts tied together in a spaghetti-like fashion. How can I communicate that with the most non-masculine-dominate sensitivity to all readers? “Spaghetti-emo-logically stated…”? (smile)