18 March 2014

Living the Questions—Review 5

In this series, we’re reviewing the book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy. In this post, we’ll be reviewing chapters 11-13.

Chapter 11: The Myth of Redemptive Violence
As can be determined by the title of this chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy set out to look at how we are to understand violence and the Bible from a redemptive standpoint. After a few pages of looking at how humanity is violent, they remark on how the god of some Christians is a “violently vindictive deity” (pg 106). They then relay how our culture is so “overwhelmed with a continual drumbeat of violence” that it even affects our language (pg. 107).

We spank our children to teach them not to hit one another. We sanction the killing of killers as a deterrent against killing. We advocate the arming of citizens to promote personal safety. Is it any wonder that people are being deluded into complying with a system that allies them with violence not compassion, with death not life? We are a wholly compromised culture that can’t even imagine the existence of any alternatives (pg. 107).

Is it any wonder that our understanding of G‑d isn’t any different? For a lot of people, this stems from our understanding of humanity — that is, it’s because of what’s known as “The Fall” and “original sin” that there’s violence in the world. Felten and Procter-Murphy, referring to Matthew Fox, point out that “Jesus himself never heard of original sin” (pg. 108). They go on to say:

The term wasn’t even used until the fourth century, so [Fox claims] “it certainly is strange to run a church, a gathering, an ekklesia — supposedly on behalf of Jesus — when one of its main dogmatic tenets, original sin, never occurred to Jesus. Western Christians are so attached to original sin — but what they’re attached to is St. Augustine (the one who came up with the doctrine — j+). The fact is that most Westerners believe more in Augustine...than they do in Jesus” (pg. 108).

Felten and Procter-Murphy really highlight the oddity of “original sin” by a quote from John Shelby Spong where he explains it using parenting as the backdrop:

What would be the influence on a child’s life if the parents, seeking to improve their parenting skills, purchased a book that instructed them everyday to inform the child that they are horrible person? “You are incapable of doing anything about your destiny.” “You are not even good enough to pick up the crumbs under the family table.” Would that create a healthy adult? Yet this is the message the church has given people for centuries. Why portray God practicing parenting skills that would be so clearly unhealthy for our own children (pg. 112)?

Of course, with the “problem” of “original sin” comes the varied solutions. Felten and Procter-Murphy summarize each of these solutions (atonement theories) — satisfaction theory, substitution theory, ransom theory, victory theory, and moral theory. Of these, they say:

These theories offer vastly different “cosmic” dynamics. The first two are directed toward God by appeasing or compensating God for humanity’s trespasses. The second two are aimed at Satan and mark the end of “demonic control” through two diametrically opposed methods — did God pay off or punch out the Devil? The last “moral” theory suggests a change of disposition, not of God or Satan, but of humanity itself.

This is very important, and something that a lot of us really need to hear — our ways of understanding what happened when Jesus was crucified really are theories. One of them is not more “right” than any of the others. We may be more familiar with one or two, we may even prefer them, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only way of understanding the cross event. For some people — like the people whom Felten and Procter-Murphy are trying to reach and countless others (me included) — some of those theories are repugnant.

Felten and Procter-Murphy offer another way of looking at the death of Jesus. They say:

To say “Jesus died for our sins” is not substitutionary or ransom based, but biblical shorthand for Jesus having died as a result of our collective sin; that is, from the normal operating procedure of unjust, oppressive, insecure, and violent human beings...Being faithful to convictions like justice, nonviolence, and the needs of the poor and the downtrodden are ways not only to take atonement out of the musty halls of speculative theology, but to actively counter the myth of redemptive violence in the world (pg. 115).

Chapter 12: Practicing Resurrection
Okay, I have to confess that this chapter really set me off. The very first paragraph let me know that this was going to be a trouble spot for me. Felten and Procter-Murphy state:

[The] resurrection remains for many the one core, nonnegotiable, and historical fact at the heart of Christianity. Yet the only way one can maintain an unquestioning and literal interpretation of the events surrounding that first Easter is by steadfastly avoiding the reading of the Bible (pg. 116; emphasis added).

Really? Are they joking? Tom Wright wrote an entire book on the subject — The Resurrection of the Son of God — that’s over 700 pages thick! But, apparently, since he holds to a “literal interpretation” of the resurrection, Wright “steadfastly avoid[s] the reading of the Bible!” What rubbish!

I almost through the book across the room. I did say a lot of things I won’t print here! It’s these kinds of statements that really make me question Felten and Procter-Murphy’s views of other people and their beliefs. It’s one thing to disagree with someone, but it’s quite another to claim “willful ignorance or just not paying attention” on their part, as they do on page 118.

I wish I could say that Felten and Procter-Murphy redeem themselves like in other chapters, but I can’t. This type of thing continues throughout this chapter and contains misinformation and misunderstanding on nearly every page.

For example, still on page 116 (indeed, it’s the next paragraph), Felten and Procter-Murphy state, “Nowhere does Paul speak of Jesus’s body having been resuscitated or of his postresurrection interaction with the disciples.”

Two things here: First, and this is key to Felten and Procter-Murphy’s misunderstanding of the subject, they use “resurrection” and “resuscitation” interchangeably. They’re not the same thing. Wright does a great job of explaining this in his book. Briefly, resuscitation means to “revive or bring back” to the previous state. Think of someone who was in horrible car accident with several broken bones and internal bleeding. While he’s on the operating table, he dies. But the doctors and nurses resuscitate him. Does this mean he’s now without need of medical attention? That he’s completely healed and no longer needing surgery? Of course not! He would still have broken bones and internal bleeding. Those things would still need to be repaired, if they could. To think that the New Testament writers are claiming that Jesus was resuscitated is to misunderstand their meaning.

Furthermore, let’s say that the movie Passion of the Christ is at least partially accurate. If Jesus stood before the disciples looking like he did in that movie and claimed that Yahweh had raised him from the dead, do we honestly think that they would have bought it? Not likely. Peter would’ve been more like, “Um...I don’t think so. You’re bleeding all over the place and your skin is just hanging off you in shreds! Yeah. You’re ‘resurrected’ alright (Pete says while making finger quotes and rolling his eyes). You’d better get to the doctor before…Jesus? Hello? No. He’s gone.”

First century Judaism used a very specific word for what they believed happened to people at the end of history — resurrection (Greek: ἀνάστασις - anastasis). It was never used the way Felten and Procter-Murphy use it in this chapter. It was understood as a re-embodiment of the soul; a trans-physicality that they didn’t fully understand or really know how to describe. In fact, John wrote, “Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3.2; NLT). This shows us that Jesus was not resuscitated. If he were, John would be very capable of knowing what we will be like and how to describe it. But the resurrected body of Jesus was something more than a physical body. As Paul said, it was a “spiritual body.” He wasn’t meaning, as Felten and Procter-Murphy suggest, that it was only a spirit — i.e., a disembodied spirit, a spirit without a body. So, Felten and Procter-Murphy are right in saying that Paul doesn’t ever speak of “Jesus’s body having been resuscitated” because he didn’t; they’re not the same thing.

Secondly, Felten and Procter-Murphy stated, “Nowhere does Paul speak...of [Jesus’] postresurrection interaction with his disciples.” Umm...yes he did. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote,

[Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once — most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time (verses 5-8).

Paul wrote that because some people in Corinth didn’t believe in the resurrection. His point in stating that most of the people to whom Jesus “appeared” were “still alive” was so that the Corinthians didn’t just have to take Paul’s word for it. No. They could ask those people!

I could go on and on in this chapter, but I won’t. The argument that Felten and Procter-Murphy make throughout this chapter is that people just don’t come back from the dead. Well, this may come as a shock for some people, but it didn’t take post-enlightenment humanity and science to figure this out. In Acts, when Paul was speaking about the resurrection, he was ridiculed by some of those in attendance (Acts 17.32) and Festus even declared, “You’ve lost your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you mad” (Acts 26.24).

I highly recommend reading Wright’s book on this subject. It might clear up some of the misunderstandings.

Chapter 13: Debunking the Rapture
It seems that the politeness of Felten and Procter-Murphy has finally worn off. While I completely agree with the totality of this chapter — that the “rapture” is not biblical — they state that those who teach it are “charlatans” and “conniving snake oil salesmen” (pg. 127). And those who believe their teaching are “vulnerable” “poor souls” (pg. 127).

However, like their previous chapter on the resurrection, Felten and Procter-Murphy make some glaring mistakes in this chapter. For example, while referring to the “sign of Jonah” on page 132, they state:

The…“sign of Jonah” is a reminder of God’s unpredictable grace. Jonah experience firsthand how God short-circuits any legalistic understanding of rules or events that force the Divine to behave in a prescribed manner or show favoritism to one particular tribe or another.

Not exactly. I mean, that might be a way of looking at the overall meaning of the story of Jonah (and I would tend to agree), but that’s not the meaning behind the phrase “sign of Jonah.” Matthew has Jesus saying what the “sign of Jonah” means, “Just as Jonah was in the whale’s belly for three days and three nights, so the Human One will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 13.38-41). Here, Jesus ties his own death and subsequent resurrection to the story of Jonah in the “whale’s belly.”

(As an aside, in that passage, Jesus said that the people of Nineveh “will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it as guilty.” The phrase “will stand up” is the word anistemi (Greek - ἀνίστημι) and is the basis for the word translated as “resurrection.”)

Felten and Procter-Murphy go on to say that “If Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, he was wrong, since the end of the world didn’t come in his lifetime (nor has it since)” (page 134). Since I’m already doing another series on New Testament Eschatology, I won’t spend a lot of time on this. Suffice it to say that, once more, I think that Felten and Procter-Murphy misunderstand the nature of apocalyptic literature. And, personally, I have a hard time saying that Jesus “was wrong” because our view of eschatology doesn’t match up to what Jesus said. It seems unthinkable to some people that we could be the ones that are wrong.

So, while Felten and Procter-Murphy make fun of the views of others and call them names and question their motives, in my opinion, they fail to offer a valid alternative (and they can’t really since most of the passages used to support the rapture were historically used to support the bodily resurrection). Instead, they end the chapter on the need to bring “hope and reconciliation to a troubled world — doing our part to bring healing to the nations, one person at a time” (pg. 135). And while I’m all for that, these last two chapters (and, perhaps all three if you hold to the substitutionary atonement theory) leave a gaping hole in what many would consider the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith.

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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