The Hebrew Bible is a mirror that can help us discern if we are faithful to God’s calling as His holy people.
When I was younger, I would often get frustrated reading the First Testament. It was upsetting to see so much faithlessness, idolatry and sheer stubbornness. The older I get, the more I see myself. I begin to discern my own lack of faith, idolatry and yes, how I often insist that I am right when I am clearly not.
I find it interesting that in the New Testament, so many of Paul’s ethical arguments begin with baptism (i.e., Col 2:20). When Paul wants to argue that we are not living lives worthy of the Gospel, he reminds us of our death, burial and resurrection with Christ.
Because of the hardness of their hearts, Judah was taken off to exile in Babylon. God had not abandoned His purposes for them but they had to learn the hard way what it meant to be His people, to be a light for the nations. But this time, they had to be taught this lesson far away from home.
They were tempted, as they had always been, to want to be like the other nations. They envied their apparent prosperity and their forms of government. Numerous times God warned them that they were better off being God’s people among the nations. Their uniqueness was part of God’s promise to them and part of God’s blessing to the nations.
It seems that even in exile they had not learned their lesson. God warned them through His prophet Isaiah:
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon (55:6–7 NRSV).
In his Lenten meditations, Walter Brueggemann writes:
“These verses are a familiar call to worship or a call to repentance, not a bad accent for Lent. . . . The imperative is around four verbs, ‘seek, call, forsake, return,’ good Lenten verbs. But this is not about generic repentance for generic sins. I believe, rather, the sin addressed concerns for Jews too eager to become Babylonians, too easy to compromise Jewish identity, Jewish faith, Jewish discipline — in order to get along in a Babylonian empire that had faith in other gods with other disciplines. The imperatives are summons to come back to an original identity, an elemental discipline, a primal faith.”
Brueggemann continues his meditation of this prophetic text and makes observations about the American church. He could have easily been writing about the Latin American or European church.
“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.
“The good news for the church is that nobody, liberal or conservative, has high ground. The hard news is that the Lenten prerequisite for mercy and pardon is to ponder again the initial identity of baptism . . . ‘child of the promise,’ . . . ‘to live a life worthy of our calling,’ worthy of our calling in the face of false patriotism; overheated consumerism; easy, conventional violence; and limitless acquisitiveness. Since these forces and seductions are all around us, we have much to ponder in Lent about our baptismal identity.”
Maybe we’ve missed the mark trying to be something we’re not. Maybe we’ve forgotten that our sole allegiance belongs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Quite possibly the narrative that most excites us and rises our blood pressure is that which appears on the nightly news and not that which we read from Genesis to Revelation.
I certainly do not have all the answers. But repentance, turning back to God and away from false identities and loyalties is always a good place to start.
Here are a few books that have challenged and inspired me this past year. I pray they might do the same for you this coming year!
Book Recommendations for 2021
These are the best reflections I’ve read about Coronavirus and the Christian faith. Both N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann are two of my favorite theologians.
Not only are we facing a pandemic, but a lot of political unrest. Please, please, please take the time to read Lee Camp’s political manifesto for Christians. It might just change your life (as Kingdom thinking does).
I have been reading and re-reading St. Augustine for years. I have also been following the work of James K. A. Smith. In this book I found much more than I imagined! This was this year’s most spiritually forming book for me. I highly recommend it!
I love reading biblical theology by scholars who strive to condense their longer and deeper works into tomes for a popular level. This book by Richard Bauckman is absolutely brilliant!
In addition to reading theology, I enjoy reading novels and poetry for spiritual formation. This year during quarantine I spent time with Rainer Maria Rilke and T.S. Eliot. I always love reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Check out these anthologies that will help you better discover the spiritual writings of these two Russian giants!
This past year I have taken a greater interest in Patristics. If you would like to read writings from early Christian theologians, the Philokalia is a great place to begin!
In addition to Patristics, I discovered Alexander Schmemann and his work, For the Life of the World. I started learning about sacramental theology in regards to storytelling in Catholic literature (for ex. Flannery O’Connor) and now I’ve found one of the classic works on the topic and it has revolutionized my thinking.
Check out this anthology of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These stories can help you reflect on interracial relationships and what it means to be a part of the same community with people who are radically different than you are. Also check out Chimamanda’s fellow Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, especially his work, Things Fall Apart.
In the area of pastoral theology, I could not leave out a title by Eugene Peterson. This book is not to be read straight through but to be read little by little for deep reflection. This book is a part of a larger series on pastoral work.
Even before I saw his painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in person, I have been fascinated by the person and work of Hieronymus Bosch. So I thought I’d end this list with a book by one of my favorite publishing houses, Taschen.
Let yourself be challenged by people who are different than you, people who lived in other times and places. Dare to become not only better informed, but spiritually transformed.
I must admit, I am drawn to Byzantium, to the ancient cities and culture of Eastern Christianity. In some circles it is common to describe anything useless or helplessly complex as “Byzantine”. This is just as preposterous as the French thinkers calling themselves the promoters of the Enlightenment in contrast to those thoughtful theologians and philosophers from the supposed “Dark Ages” upon whose shoulders they stood.
Eastern Christianity often suffers at the hands of Western ignorance. Many people summarize Eastern Christianity as Roman Catholicism without a pope. The truth is, Eastern Christianity is a fount of theology, spirituality, art, and music that comes to our aid in these pressing times.
In our liquid modernity and postmodern churches, we do not have two feet to stand on. We act as if every institution and church tradition must be undone in order to be free. However, the faithful witness of Christians in the East tell us another story. It is not easy to be a Christian today in the post-Christian West yet it has rarely been easy to be a Christian in the East.
While Christians in the West may prefer to seek refuge in the early church and in later Western expressions of Christianity (i.e. the European Reformation), the East today provides traditions and theological undrestandings that can anchor our communities and keep our spiritualities free from self-help, egocentric, consumeristic, and degenerate forms of the Gospel.
May William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium” inspire us to return to the ancient cities of the Orient in order to discover not ruins, but the living faith and tradition of Eastern Christianity and its vibrant spirituality.