Monthly Archives: December 2010

Devil Reads Derrida: Tuning in, and Turning On The Brain

James KA Smith teaches at Calvin College in the philosophy department.  (Why he has 2 middle initials, as do many Calvinists, is unknown to me)  He is regularly on NPR and other radio shows, and is a genuine public intellectual.  He is engaging, smart, and relevant.  I just read through one of his more recent books, “Devil Reads Derrida” (which is the title of one of the 25+ short essays in this fun little book) and I like it.  I like it a  lot.  In it he covers topics such as the ‘wild at heart’ movement, Obama, sex, open theism, discipleship, theology, politics, movies, and even poetry.

Smith is an evangelical in the best sense of the word.  In distinction to fundamentalists, who want to circle the wagons and protect what they’ve got against outsiders (liberals, relativists, the world at large) evangelicals want to bring the gospel to bear on their culture– and not necessarily through radical political stances (see his Chapter 18 on Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation).    As an evangelical– i.e., a Christian who want to engage culture and apply the gospel to it reflectively– Smith has a great collection of short essays which he wrote in the last few years for various magazines, etc. 

One of the most powerful essays for me personally in the book was his introductory essay, challenging Christian academics to be more involved in popular Christianity.  It is quite common for Christian academics to feel somewhat disconnected from popular Christianity as you find it in the pews and on the radio airwaves.  He says,

“For too many Christian scholars, their basic stance toward popular Christianity is derision and condescension.  But such a stance will change nothing.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am often exasperated, frustrated, and embarrassed by my own faith community– that there are days when I can’t stomach being described as an “evangelical” because of the guilt by association.  But at the end of the day, these are my people.  I still pick up Christianity Today before I pick up the Christian Century or First Things. … I know and revere Noncoformist saints like Jim Elliot and Corrie ten Boom.  I still understand the inner workings and issues of evangelicalism better than the labyrinthine machinations of American liberalism or Catholicism….In short, I still feel at home in evcangelical circles– if you understand being “at home” like coming back to a small town Thankgiving dinner, with all its charm and awkwardness, all its arguments and hugs. So these are my people, and I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt”

I can identify with this, feeling a disconnect from Pat Robertson’s saying that perhaps Chavez should be assassinated, evangelicals blaming 911 on homosexuality or abortion, or generally feeling like there was a pressure as an evangelical to only listen to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and to believe that Obama is a muslim.  That disconnect can lead to a sense of alienation and homelessness.  But  Smith lays the responsibility for this disconnect, and the causes of this frustration, right at the feet of the Christian scholars themselves.  He describes what has happened to Christian culture:

“In the case that hits closest to home for me, as scholars at the denominations college devoted their intellectual energy to their various guilds, Christians within the denomination found themselves looking for wisdom and guidance where they could get it.  The result is that they picked up what was available–in Christian bookstores, magazines, and, perhaps most significantly, on Christian radio.  And since Christian intellectuals had pretty much vacated these spaces, the result is that the Christian public began to nourish themselves with what I have to say is a largely unhealthy diet…Celebrity pastors, radio evangelists, and Christian talk radio hosts filled the vacuum that was left by the evacuation of Christian intellectuals from the popular spaces of the Christian community….and if “we” (Christian scholars) won’t provide this life-long learning, then the hunger for guidance and wisdom and insight will be satisfied from other sources.  Who are “we” to complain, then, about the popular diet of evangelicalism?”

Evangelical scholars have gone out of their way to avoid popular Christian culture, and then we complain that it isn’t very scholarly– no wonder– since we have abandoned it.  And this critique can just as well apply to Christian hipsters and those who are more intellectually minded Christian lay people who sit at the sidelines and don’t participate in church, finding popular evangelical culture beneath them.  If all the hipsters don’t go to the common man’s church, they will find that its not very hip.  No kidding…

But Smith’s book is not aimed at Scholars in particular.  He has essays on the importance of learning to rest, going through dry spells in our spiritual walk, on being reformed (calvinist) and pentecostal, and the importance of reaching out to our neighborhoods, as well as his take on the emergent church, open theism, wild at heart, and postmodernism. 

Smiths work is engaging and challenging, to layperson and scholar alike.  You may not agree with everything he says, but engaging the thought of a fellow evangelical who is sincerely and thoughtfully wrestling with contemporary issues which face us is likely to lead to a more thoughtful and interesting Christian life and walk. 

May God have mercy on us all.  (And thank you God for books like these)

PS I was really encouraged to hear that a group of Christian guys in Aurora had recently been reading another book by Smith– Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism– in their bookclub.  Its a nice intro to a few of the key postmodern thinkers, and in it he definitely challenges Christians to be actively engaged in their local congregations.  

Here is Jamie’s website:


666: NERO, the Antichrist

When I was a kid, most Sunday nights seemed devoted to study of the book of Revelation and Daniel, two books which provide a lot of prophesy.  These books were often taken to be about what would happen in the end Times when Christ returns to earth.  This, in Christian thought, is called Eschatology (which just means study of last things (eschaton (last) 0logy (study))  One thing I often heard about was the antichrist and 666– the number of the beast.  There were a lot of books and little Christian movies about how that everyone would maybe need to get a mark on their hand like a upc symbol which would work as a credit or debit card to pay for things, and that if you refused, you may starve.  This was considered to be the mark of the beast by some.  

There have been, as I wrote about last week, a lot of Christian books put out over the years about the second coming and end of the world.  The mark of the beast and the coming of the antichrist were part of that focus.  Various theories have been put forth regarding who the antiChrist is.  I remember hearing it was Secretary of State Kissinger when I was a child (perhaps because of his involvement in unfreezing relations with the Communist Chinese?).  Of course many protestants have claimed the antiChrist is the Pope– in fact the original Calvinist Westminister confession explicitly says so.  Nietzsche (who wasn’t a Christian or a Calvinist) claimed it was the priests.   Some Russians thought it must be the Czar in the 1600s.  Some thought it was Aleister Crowley, others John F. Kennedy. Some currently think it is Obama

This weekend I heard a nice sermon by an Anglican priest.  He brought up the fact that in the 1800s it was realized that emporer NEROs name in hebrew was 666 (Hebrew letters have numeric equivalents) and also that in Latin Neros name would be 616 which is a number found in place of “666” in some Latin translations of the Bible. 

I’m not generally very interested in end times speculation.  I do tend to think that the end times hype of ‘Left Behind” and all that Christian-subculture stuff was big money for a few companies and a big distraction for a lot of Christians.  But I am interested in the Nero theory, which seems pretty solid to me (more solid than Kissinger or Obama anyways) and here is why:

When you have this ongoing conspiratorial Christianity trying to discover what it is we should really be fearing the most– who it is that is deceiving us and pulling the wool over our eyes and tricking everybody but the few elect smart enough to listen to whoever claims to “know” who the antichrist is– well that seems to be a Christianity of fear, speculation without strong basis, and sensationalism seasoned with conspiratorial tendencies and usually a mean spirited streak.  Is the book of Revelation– God’s Word– intended to make us live in constant fear and paranoia about who the next likely candidate is to be antichrist?  I hope not.

If Nero was the AntiChrist, that means, first of all, that a lot of Christian speculation about antichrist can be put aside so we can focus on doing the work of God on earth instead of thinking of possible problems and tricksters trying to foil us.   BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY it means that the book of Revelation when it speaks about the antichrist, gives us a basis for hope and expectation of overcomming whatever obstacles we are currently facing.

Nero was a maniac.  He killed Christians and Jews and was said to have burned Rome.  He was not a man of peace, kindness, goodness, patience, love, mercy or grace.  He killed members of his own family.  In all respects he was the opposite of Christ– throughly anti-Christ.  And he was cause of great fear and concern for Christians of the early Church.  But Nero was overcome, defeated, and he lost.   In fact, he killed himself. 

If Nero was the antichrist spoken of in Revelation, that doesn’t mean that there will be no more struggle for people who are for Christ.  But it does mean that some of the speculation regarding the AntiChrist and some of the speculation about end times is out of place and a waste of time.  Again, we Christians often spend a lot of time worrying about things which either are none of our business to be worrying about, or which are distractions from doing the work that God really has given us.  It also means that the antichrist is not something which should lead us to be looking for boogey-men behind every bush, but rather, the antiChrist John speaks of has been defeated, and so it is a story leading to hope, not fear and conspiracy theories. 

May God have mercy on us all.

Were The Three Wisemen Guilty of Bribery?: Giving Gifts to God as Worship

In the business ethics classes I teach, we do a section on international business ethics.  Of course the question of “when in rome, should I do as a roman?” comes up (relativism).  One issue in particular is Bribery.  Now bribery is more tricky than it first seems.  Bribery is when you give something something to influence their behavior.  In some countries it is not umcommon for foreign officials to expect some payment under the table (illegally) to make a decision in your favor.  We consider it corrupt when that person is supposed to be acting in the publics best interest but does something biased for you because you give them a bribe. 

But there are other gifts given to influence behavior which we don’t consider criminal– happy meal toys to get kids to buy a particular meal; tips to win better service; rebates or free appetizers cards or 2 for 1 deals at restaraunts, etc to influence customerbehavior, etc.   One might even call reception dinners after weddings a non-corrupt bribe, to repay guests for the kindness of their coming and their gift.   But we don’t think of these as bribes per se.

There is also extortion, which isn’t bribery.  My students sometimes tell me of spring break trips to mexico where a police officer threatens to put them in jail unless they pay the officer money on the spot.  In many cases, this isn’t a bribe, because the officer is threatening to do something which is probably not legal.  His behavior is more like someone in the mafia telling you to give them $1,000 or ‘your legs might get broke’. 

Not all gifts are bribes either.  This is something we don’t quite understand from the West.  In Africa or middle east countries, it is quite common to give gifts to people out of respect or honor.  This isn’t a bribe, because you aren’t necessarily trying to get any favor or decision in your favor.  You are just honoring them, and showing respect for their position.  You are saying, “I know who you are, and I respect you”.  

I once gave the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a gift, and it wasn’t a bribe.  Whenever I go to Iran (I’ve been there 5 times) I bring books and US artifacts to give to special people I meet.  Since I mostly meet academics, I bring a lot of books.  In 2004 I was at a dinner for foreign guests at the reception palace of the mayor of Tehran– Ahmadinejad at the time– and my translator asked if I wanted to go meet the mayor.  I said sure, and looked in my bag for a gift to find all I had was a nice copy of “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill.  That was the book I gave him, with a little note inside.  I only wish I had a picture of that moment now, handing him that book. 

At some of the other events I spoke at I would receive gifts– a clock, meals, Iranian artifacts, or plaques.  We give plaques in the US, but no one thinks that these are bribes– they are simply a sign of honor for the recipient. 

It was not uncommon for kings or queens in the Bible to have gifts given to them.  Solomon had many gifts given to him: the queen of sheba showered him with gifts, the Pharoh of Egypt gave his daughter as a wedding gift to Solomon, etc.  These were given in honor, not necessarily as bribes. 

When the wisemen came to see Jesus, they also brought gifts– gold, frankencense, and Myrrh.  These weren’t payoffs or bribes– they were signs of honor.  The wisemen honred Jesus by travelling to see him and to offer him expensive gifts, as signs of their respect and worship. 

Christians can give gifts to honor God.  Of course these things can turn into bribes if the mindset is to give something to God to get something back.  Sometimes people think they will merit Gods favor by giving their time, their money, etc.  But this is a corruption of gift giving.  But sometimes we tend to think of these outward signs of honoring God as attempts to merit God’s favor.  And thats not right either.  Some churches (particularly Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc) are amazing works of art and architecture, built to honor God.  Now some donors may have given money to these projects to gain merit– to bribe God.  But the same may happen with people donating to mission projects or other charity.  Only God knows the heart.  But the point is that these outward offerings of generosity can be very honoring to God. 

We may respond, as Judas did, that the money spent on things such as the perfume poured on Jesus feet by the prostitute, or the money spent on buiding beautiful monuments to God could have been spent more efficiently and effectively.  And no doubt, sometimes money is spent unwisely for ‘God’s sake’.  But gift giving as honor is a concept which does not mesh well with economizing scrimping and saving.  Good stewardship does not necessitate miserliness, despite the protests of some scrooges. 🙂  Sometimes we immediately interpret others gifts to God as bribes– we think that they are just trying to earn God’s favor or merit God’s mercy.  But that just isn’t the case.  We should allow others to give gifts to God without rushing to judgment that they are jus trying to earn their way to heaven, etc 🙂

Its important also to remember that gift receiving can be difficult for some of us as well, and that should maybe make us consider the state of our heart:

“Gift-receiving is also a thermometer of the soul. It is “more blessed to give than to receive,” as Jesus says (Acts 20:35), but receiving is usually harder. Sometimes the reluctance or refusal to receive a gift indicates the absolute need for independence and the fear of being under obligation to perform some duty in return.”(urbana)

This is the time of year for us to take time to pray and reflect on the graciousness of God’s gifts to us.  Thanksgiving is a great preparation to get us to start thinking of God’s grace and mercy.  We are blessed, and to accept the blessings of God and gifts from others does take humility and a stance of non-independence.  We should beware of our Judas tendencies to criticize generosity, while also striving to be good stewards of what God has given.  Christians are called to live in an economy of Grace– not mere justice.  Justice calls on us to demand right payment, but when we have been given grace beyond measure and beyond what we deserve, we no longer have a basis upon which to demand our rights.  In this economy of Grace we receive the generosity of God, accepting it knowing we do not merit it, and we give graciously to others without reserve, knowing that the little we give pales in comparison to the much we’ve been given.

May God have mercy on us all, and may we give good gifts to God and to others.


Jesus Will Come May 21, 2011, and the End of the World will be October 21, 2011

“Thus, we must realize that October 21, 2011 will be the final day of this earth’s existence.” — Harold Camping (We Are Almost There, p. 3…3)

“Harold Camping lets out a hearty chuckle when he considers the people who believe the world will end in 2012.  ‘That date has not one stitch of biblical authority,’ Camping says from the Oakland office where he runs Family Radio, an evangelical station that reaches listeners around the world. ‘It’s like a fairy tale.’  The real date for the end of times, he says, is in 2011.” (

Recent reports say that Nashville has 40 billboards up around town letting people know that the end of the world will happen on May 21, 2011, sponsored by Rev Camping’s Family Radio network and  and Allison Warden, one of the founders of Raleigh, N.C.-based We Can Know, said Wednesday that an analysis of Scripture, particularly the genealogies, shows Jesus will come in May. “God actually provides a calendar that points to May 21, 2011, as the day for Christ to return,” she said.

Omaha has 4, reportedly.   Of course this poses problems for my wedding plans, since we were counting on the 28th.  We are considering changing our ‘save the date’ reminders to read: “May 28th Andy and Celeste are getting married! (provided Camping is wrong)” 

Of course it is important for Christians to remember the second coming (parousia) spoken of in scripture.  Heidegger in his 192o-21 lectures on phenomenology of religious life talks about how that Christian thought uniquely places the believer on knifes edge as we wait for the return of Jesus, knowing that every moment may be our last– this heightened existential situation puts an ultimate value on each moment, as we live our lives on the red alert.  But that is exhausting.  Its so much nicer to just know so we can plan around the event.  So we look for Pastor Campings to tell us… 

This is not the first time Camping predicted the future.  In 1994 he predicted “The results of this study indicate that the month of September of the year 1994 is to be the time for the end of history” –Harold Camping (1994?, New York: Vantage Press, p. 531).  He and his followers waited in vain that time:

“On Sept. 6, 1994, dozens of Camping’s believers gathered inside Alameda’s Veterans Memorial Building to await the return of Christ, an event Camping had promised for two years. Followers dressed children in their Sunday best and held Bibles open-faced toward heaven.” (cogpost)

But he now claims his calculations were off, but this new set of numerical calculations is accurate… He has also made claims that the age of the church has ended– God is no longer using the church and you should leave churches:

“Camping contends that “the work of the church is finished,” and that those who remain in the church, during the time of the on-coming “tribulation,” will be destroyed. He thus bids the faithful to flee the church. He goes so far as to suggest that if one were to find a church “where it appears that each and every doctrine they hold is faithful to the Word of God,” it should be avoided — if one hopes to escape the impending destruction.” (christian courier)

People like to think the Bible reveals hidden truths which correspond to historical happenings.  We like to know what is coming in the future.  We don’t like surprises.  And this has provided book sellers with a great market for fantastic projections about when and how the end of the world will come (according to the Bible, of course). 

Hal Lindsay in The Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970’s provided a dispensationalist view of the establishment being a key component of the return of Christ (Lindsay said 1988 was an important date to keep watch on).

John Walverford has targeted this niche industry, pumping out bestsellers on end times such as Armageddon, Oil and Terror; The Revelation of Jesus Christ; 688 page Every Prophecy of the Bible: A Clear Explanation; Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis; and so on.  Tim Lahaye is better known with his Left Behind series and his many multiple books regarding end-times theology. 

Another example of future-telling based loosely on the bible was The Bible Code, the best-selling book by Michael Drosin, published in 1997.  The sequel (The Bible Code II) was a best-seller in 2002.  Drosin claimed messages were encoded in the Bible, originally in the Hebrew Torah, and it all sounds possible to an open minded person until he gets into his theory about extra-terrestrials implanting the code… in BCII

A lot of ink and effort seems to be spent trying to figure out what the Bible says about the end times.  The one thing Scripture is clear about is that we will not know when Jesus returns.  In Matthew 24:36 Jesus says about these things that “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  If Pastor Camping claims to know the day, he is claiming to know a. something Jesus said pastor Camping couldn’t know and b. something which Jesus claimed neither he nor angels could know.  So pastor Campings claim is bold indeed. 

Again, people want to be in control, to not be surprised, to have a lock on what God is up to and what his plans are.  This drives an awful lot of our theological pursuits and quest for knowledge.  But we know that that very desire for certainty through knowledge was the original sin of Adam and Eve when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil desiring to be like God.  We want to be God when we want to know as God knows, and we want to know as God knows so that we don’t have to trust God. 

Of course this is not an argument to not seek knowledge– but to not seek knowledge of things that are beyond us, and beyond the clear commands of scripture.  This is what often gets us into a lot of trouble.  People come up with clarity on issues when one doesn’t find clarity on those issues in the Bible itself– and when we do that we step beyond Scripture and start to impose our own personal views onto others and the Bible itself.  We need moderation and humility.  That doesn’t mean we know nothing, but it does mean that perhaps we don’t know as much as we like, and we have to walk by faith, not by sight. 

May God have mercy on us all– mercy to not waste time trying to not have faith when we should be using our lives to serve God.  And although I look forward to my wedding, if Jesus chooses to come before then, thats OK with me 🙂