On Being a Seminarian: Being “Present” Through Social Media…

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other blogs, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

During my fifth year as an undergrad, I took an introductory PR class. Not only was I still adjusting to the switch from the English Department to the School of Journalism at the U of O (English major, Comm. Studies minor), but I was also adjusting to a particular style of class interaction. There were the vocal discussions much like my English classes, but in this particular PR class, Twitter was used – in fact encouraged! – as a medium to engage the course material.

Ever since that class, I have loved using Twitter. And in a weird way, it helps me to take notes during lectures. If I can process the concepts I learn in class well enough to make a joke about them (many of my tweets are sarcastic remarks), then I’ve processed them well enough to remember them. Knowing what those concepts are about is a little bit trickier, but that gets balanced out with an extra bit of studying. As far as the tweets themselves are concerned, they only seem to help me.

Yesterday, I talked about the challenges this introvert (myself) faces when engaging larger groups of people. During class the night before, we had used Twitter to share thoughts, jokes, and questions about the book of Esther (we listened to an audio version of it – feel free to read tweets here). While, for the most part, I sat back and read all my class mates’ tweets (sharing a few of my own here and there), I noticed how I felt much more engaged with the rest of the class – something that doesn’t necessarily happen all the time in a regular class without the utilization of social media. Don’t get me wrong; I always feel present in the class, but hardly ever a part of the class – like a simple observer occasionally brave enough to raise his hand once every month or so.

Much of it is my own choice. I mean for one thing, I always sit in the back of the class. And for another, I prefer to listen to what my classmates have to say simply because my own thoughts are still being processed – in other words, I don’t process them very well vocally. Obviously this is why I write in general; to process things. Yet with a medium like Twitter (or this blog or Facebook – well, kind of with Facebook), I’m able to write my thoughts and still partake in the class “discussion.”

Why then am I taking in-person classes when I could be taking online classes? Ironically enough, I learn better in the in-person environments. Like I said, I enjoy listening to what my classmates have to say in the spontaneous moments that in-person classes provide. In the online settings, thoughts are shared and they’re great, but they’re a little more edited, a little more refined. I enjoy seeing the beginning stages of thought development because most of the time that is where I feel I am – in the beginning stages.

What I find even more wonderful about Twitter are all the connections I’ve made in the four years I’ve been tweeting. Just a couple weeks ago, I met a newfound friend (Natalie Trust) for Mass – I had never attended Mass before, so a blog post is most certainly in the works. Before that, I received a book for free (believe it or not, from Joel L. Watts himself). And even (long) before that, I started following Brian LePort and Near Emmaus’ posts, which means I may not be blogging over there if it weren’t for Twitter.

Social media, I don’t believe, will ever be a replacement for true, genuine human interaction, but I have enjoyed the many times it has supplemented those interactions. Similar to my question yesterday, how do you – as a student, seminarian, pastor, professor, etc. – see the integration of social media platforms into your church, classroom, or even workplace? Do you see it as an enhancement to the already-present social dynamic or a hindrance?

Update on Near Emmaus…

For those who enjoy the posts on Near Emmaus (where I blog on the weekends), we’ve moved to “nearemmausblog.com” (or “nearemmaus.wordpress.com”) and are no longer “nearemmaus.com.” Simply letting everyone know in case there was any confusion as to why “nearemmaus.com” wasn’t taking you to the blog.

Long story short: Mondays apply to everyone, even Near Emmaus…

New Blogging Adventure!

Although this is a couple days late, I’m excited to announce I’ve been added to the Near Emmaus bloggers!

Beginning this weekend I’ll be contributing posts on Saturdays reflecting over life as a seminarian and on Sundays I’ll post my “Sundays With Paul” series. All of these posts will also be seen here, but I would encourage all my readers (all seven of you) to check out the other posts at Near Emmaus as well. I’m really excited for this experience because it draws in a much different blogging community than I’m used to – one full of dialogue and discussion regarding faith, theology, and biblical studies (among other things).

As for this blog, I’ll attempt to post more frequently than I have been. Homework has definitely been more demanding this semester than last fall, but once I find a rhythm, I’ll make room for more posts.

God bless.

Sundays With St. Paul: An Introduction to Paul and the Law…

One of the classes I’m taking this semester is titled “Paul and the Law” and deals with precisely those two things: Paul and the Torah (“law,” “teaching,” or “instruction” in Hebrew). After only two weeks of the class, I’ve read so much that I’ve felt the need to write some thoughts down to help process. Thus we arrive to “Sundays With  St. Paul.”

Years ago, over at Near Emmaus, there once was a blog series titled, “Wednesdays With Wright,” which walked through various passages from some of N.T. Wright’s work and simply stirred the pot of discussion within the blogging community (this is slightly over-simplifying their discussions – well worth the read). My goal with this series is essentially the same: to stir the pot of discussion regarding the apostle Paul, his letters, the Torah, and the world from which he arose (although, I must admit I’m a little bummed I don’t have the cool acronym Near Emmaus had. But I do imagine I’ll be dealing with N.T. Wright’s work regarding Paul).

With as much as I would like to give an exhaustive account about Paul, I think I would be overbooking myself given the amount of reading, writing, and research I have this semester. No doubt, such background knowledge is crucial to understanding Paul. But I sense such background information will arise when and where it is needed. Instead, I’d like to share some things I’ve read and discuss the ideas represented within – both in matters pertaining to faith and biblical scholarship (despite what might be said, the two worlds of faith and scholarship are compatible).

To begin, then, I’d like to introduce a few names we’ve read in the past two weeks who have had a significant impact on the study of Paul. Since I’m barely dipping my toes into this particular study, anyone who has read the original works of these scholars is welcome to provide insights, push back, and/or offer clarification where needed. The texts we’ve been reading for class are Stephen Westerholm’s Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics and Frank Thielman’s Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach.

Sanders

E.P. Sanders is the first name I’d like to discuss primarily because he focuses on the backdrop to Paul’s world. As Westerholm states, “In comparing Paul with Palestinian Judaism, Sanders examines not individual motifs common to both, but the ‘patterns of religion’ they represent,” (129). Sanders defines these “patterns” as “how getting in and staying in are understood,” (as quoted in Westerholm, 129).

One pattern that Sanders finds within every Judaic witness of this time he describes as “covenantal nomism,” which is “the notion that a Jew’s standing before God is secured by God’s election of Israel as his covenant people […] and that obedience to the law is Israel’s proper response to God’s initial act of grace,” (Westerholm, 129; his emphasis). Another way of talking about this notion is that it wasn’t a “works-based” process wherein devout Jews would earn their standing with God. Rather, obeying the law was an act in “response” to grace already given from God.

We may ask at this point, why did Paul seem so opposed to the law, then? If Sanders’ suggestion is true, then what’s Paul real peeve with the law? As Frank Thielman points out, Sanders thinks Paul’s real issue is that Judaism “is not Christianity,” (Thielman, 36). However, this is where I’d like to introduce another scholar: Krister Stendahl.

Stendahl

In the discussion of what was Paul’s problem with the law, Stendahl thinks it wasn’t an “inner struggle with sin,” but instead the ramifications of trying to uphold the law. Paul seemed more concerned about what sticking to the law might mean for the Gentile believers: “[Paul] wrestled with the problem of Israel’s law, not because his conscience was tormented by a failure to keep its commands, but because it appeared to bar the access of Gentiles to the people of God,” (Westerholm, 147). To understand Stendahl’s stance another way, Paul was speaking more to the Jewish-Gentile separation than to any matter of conscience.

What Stendahl finds when we treat Paul’s struggle with the law as a matter of his own internal conscience is that we make it our own. “Here the (redefined) law is understood as given ‘to make man see his desperate need for a Savior,’” (Westerholm, 148). Once one sees their need for a savior, then they’ve followed the path of Paul and can embrace the grace of Christ. Not only is “the age of the law” rekindled when it shouldn’t be, but it’s rekindled in a way it was never meant to, which, as Stendahl argues, then distorts our understanding of the Mosaic law and especially of how Paul is actually defending the law in Romans 7 (Westerholm, 149).

What I find interesting about Stendahl’s focus is that it hints at what Paul was really concerned with. Yet where Stendahl seems to hint at, another scholar, and the final one I’ll discuss for this post, James D. G. Dunn, hits the nail on the head.

Dunn

According to Frank Thielman’s summary, Dunn agreed “heartily with Sanders […] that the old Protestant picture of Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness must be abandoned, and he endorses the description of Judaism as ‘covenantal nomism,’” (41). Yet he takes this a step further and targets the “social function” of the law; that even while it was an indicator of Israel’s unique relationship with God, it was being used “as a racial barrier to exclude Gentiles from entrance into the people of God,” (42). As discussed earlier, Stendahl mentioned this, but yet focused on the “introspective conscience” aspect and how it was blotting out Paul’s context. Dunn places his focus on this social function and argues this is what Paul was opposed to: an elitism that kept people out when Christ is inviting people in.

Again, this is a very brief overview of what I’ve been reading, which is also a brief overview of the entire study revolving around Paul. But these scholars bring up things I might have never thought about while reading Paul’s letters – especially how he wasn’t, as these scholars suggest, targeting a “works-based” Judaism (that may not have even existed in Paul’s time!).

In future posts I hope to focus a little more on only one or two scholars, especially as I dive deeper and deeper into my research topic. For now, though, I think this is sufficient to get the ball rolling and hopefully create some nuance in our dialogue about Paul.

What do you think of Paul’s apparent negativity toward the law? Is there a negative tone? And what do you think all this means for modern day Christians and our understanding of what Paul is actually trying to say?

I hope everyone has had a great Sunday.

God bless.

Dazzled or Discipled?

Below is a guest post I wrote for Near Emmaus‘ latest series, NFL and Christian Theology. I attempted to tackle (pun intended) the issue of being a fan of various teams and sports and still being a genuine follower of God. Any questions for discussion can be asked here or on their site. Hope you enjoy!

Ever since the day I first laid eyes on the green & yellow jerseys of the Green Bay Packers, I’ve been a fan of football. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for me to think of fall without thinking of football (especially since a tradition of mine every year on the day fall officially begins is to watch Remember the Titans). What I think I love the most about football is watching a great game with close friends. It allows you to be distracted from the mundane parts of life, even if only for a few hours.

In my ten years of going to church, football has always seemed to be a part of the experience as well. Here in Eugene, it’s mostly about college football – congregants talking about Saturday’s big game, injuries, favorite players, etc. But after a bit the focus shifts to the NFL because the pastors formed a fantasy league through the church’s men’s group(s)… and church is usually on the same day as most NFL games. And on the days where I managed to avoid the football discussions, I somehow have noticed (or have been) that guy wearing a jersey. I’ve sometimes wondered if God secretly wears a Manning jersey.

All throughout these experiences of NFL and church mixed together, I’ve been able to notice a few things that are a little odd. For instance, most NFL fans are relaxed in their attire and demeanor – dressing up in their team’s colors and cheering when they score or make a big stop on defense. Church-goers, on the other hand, tend to be dressed nicely and are emotionally reserved – only raising their hands during worship and only if their neighbors are doing it, too.

Another one is many NFL fans will sit in one chair/position for countless hours despite whatever the conditions may be whereas church-goers start eyeing the clock twenty minutes into a sermon. And when it’s all over, NFL fans tend to remember many of their favorite plays and moments from the game (even if it had nothing to do with the game itself) while many church-goers remember vague topics or maybe a couple of the pastor’s jokes. It seems fans are care-free while church-goers are care-ful.

I have often wondered what this might mean. Should pastors and their leadership teams find new and innovative ways to spice up their Sunday mornings? Maybe start with an upbeat worship song and then have a very interactive sermon? Or what if we simply gave Jesus a jersey number? Would things change then? Or perhaps church-goers – those dedicated to the movement of Christ – should call into question the various areas and ways in which societal influence has had an affect on the church-going experience?

We live in an entertainment-based society. If we aren’t dazzled within the first few seconds of a TV show, movie, or even a book, we tend not to be very engaged throughout the rest. I discovered my own entertainment-seeking tendencies when I first read Faulkner for an English class in college. But think of all the games people tend to have on their cell phones. I just received an iPhone 4 for a birthday present and already I’ve been hooked to only a couple games. I don’t even want to imagine what’ll happen when I discover newer games. Maybe by then I’ll be better at Words With Friends… Okay, no. Probably not.

Is football or the NFL to blame for all these attention-span problems? No, I don’t think so. But there are certain influences that I think tend to mar or blur or dilute one’s Sunday experience with God and His people. On my own blog, I’ve written a recent post about how things like watching NFL games might be a way to draw a fellowship a little closer together. I think every time I’ve watched the Super Bowl I’ve done so with friends from church.

But should such an event be the center of focus when the church is gathering to worship, seek, and learn from God? I think most of us would say not at all. And what about the rest of the week? Should things like the NFL take precedence over our own spiritual formation as individuals or as a church body on days when we don’t meet together? Again, I think we’d all say no. But I think there’s a way in which we’re influenced on a daily basis that causes us to form various habits – habits that seem to result in us finding ways to “pass the time.”

Christ’s call to His disciples is so very different from one’s favorite NFL team’s call to their fans. Christ tells us flat out that we must be sold out: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Matt. 10:39, ESV). What would an NFL team ask of their fans? Buy all the gear, watch all the games, spend some money on their ridiculously-priced tickets, spend more money at the food concessions, etc., etc. It sounds similar in a sense: One’s spending all of one’s money on the team. But what’s given in return? Freedom? Eternal salvation? Peace? Hope? Or just a few hours of distraction every Sunday morning or afternoon?

What I hope not to imply is that we need to be more superficially-enthralled into every gathering of our church or that the NFL is evil. It solves nothing to remove one extreme and replace it with another. It’d be the same problem, but with a different color. And frankly I also hope no one’s expecting me to come up with a three-point solution to the problem. I don’t think such a thing exists. What I do hope for, though, is that as we gather with the church or read our Bibles on our own or meet up with fellow believers to talk about spiritual stuff that we are truly being genuine with ourselves and with each other. Even if one person is wearing a Packers jersey while the other is wearing a Bears jersey, my hope is that we’d be aware of John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” (ESV).

My home church, Emmaus Life (brand new seven weeks ago), was founded with the main objective of bringing Jesus’ abundant life – His real, genuine life – to a hurting world. If on Sundays (or Monday or Thursday nights) we act how the fandom culture of the NFL tells us we’re supposed to act, we can’t really deliver this real life. Would anyone really sense anything different about us if we’re cussing out the refs on a terrible call or shirking responsibility to family and friends because the game is on? I highly doubt it. And I certainly don’t think God wants us taking that risk.

Wear your colors, cheer for your team, but do so in such a way that God is reflected. And maybe, just maybe, we’d find a way to wade through this world with its entertainment-based ways.

God bless.

A Road to God Knows Where…

Two weeks in with a brand new church and I already love every minute of it. Yesterday was something different for me – I think it was something different for everyone. Instead of showing up to church, putting a smile on for the greeting team (although, it’s hard not to put on a smile for Emmaus Life’s greeting team: Two little Lamb kids dancing and yelling, “More people! More people!” every time a car pulls up), and finding my usual seat in the pews, I got to share my story. It was really uncomfortable. But it was every bit of what I needed.

Everyone shared their story yesterday. After starting off with a couple worship songs, Scott talked about where he got the name for Emmaus Life. Throughout the last week, apparently, people were at a bit of a loss with the word “Emmaus.” And if I wasn’t such an avid reader of Near Emmaus – a blog devoted to the theological side of our journey with God – I probably wouldn’t have known about Emmaus, either.

It comes from Luke 24:13-32:

“That very day two of them (the disciples) were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.

Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’

And he said to them, ‘What things?’

And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’

And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.

They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’”

Scott then let us get some food and find a table. Once we were all seated, he asked us to share our “road to Emmaus” moment; the moment where we clearly felt the Lord’s presence on our hearts to stir us into a pursuit of Him. And so, person by person, we each shared our story with everyone at our tables.

It had been quite a while since I last talked about how I came to truly following God, so I imagine I was bouncing around quite a bit in the timeline of things. Even so, I shared about my upbringing – being removed from my mother’s custody, having my grandparents “adopt” me and my older brother (technically they became our permanent legal guardians, which I guess is different than adoption), and then getting baptized in the 8th grade. Right when I got to the part where things changed – that winter break of freshman year of college – I could feel the emotions begin to swell.

Talking about that moment when God truly caught my heart brought up the very same emotions I felt that night almost six years ago. I felt the pain of not having someone to call “dad,” I felt the shame for all the grudges I had held, and I felt the same overwhelming joy of knowing that God has been with me every single step of the way.

Ever since Calvary dissolved, I’ve been in a sort of spiritual desert. At times I could see where I was going, but not very clearly. After a while of walking around in the desert, you begin to believe you aren’t ever really getting out. What yesterday morning did for me, though, was remind me of God’s ever-constant presence. Sometimes when you don’t know where you’re going, you just need to remember why you started going there.

My “road to Emmaus” moment six years ago told me that God is my Father. It told me that every bit of purpose or meaning I have ever felt within myself in my entire life comes from Him and that in order to see it all fulfilled, I must follow His Son named Jesus. It’s a process. It’s a journey. It’s a road to God knows where. And that’s just it: God knows. That’s all the hope we need.

God bless.

Prophecy or Rhetorical Statement (Or Maybe a Little Bit of Both)?

Vintage Jesus has bugged me a little bit again today. Chapter 3 is devoted to the question, “How did people know that Jesus was coming?” and Driscoll walks through over 40 different passages conveying how people were aware of Jesus’ arrival. He first quotes the OT and then finds a NT proof text to legitimize his central argument, that “Jesus is the centerpiece of both history and Scripture and, without being hyperbolic, everything is ultimately about Jesus,” (65).

I’m not in disagreement with his argument, that the Bible is about Jesus, but I’m a little irritated by how black and white he paints the picture of these prophecies “being fulfilled” in the New Testament. Sure, each one could have actually happened just as the New Testament portrays. But to a certain extent, I would have to say that many NT authors did a lot of copying or mimicking of OT stories. For instance, Matthew’s birth narrative seems to mimic Moses’ birth while Luke’s birth narrative mimics Samuel’s. When Hosea then says, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” Driscoll (and others) presents this as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth and refer us to Matthew’s story.

Driscoll does use this passage to “prove” its prophetic tone in reference to Jesus by matching it up with Matthew’s account, specifically where it quotes Hosea (Matt. 2:15). What I find dumbfounding, though, is that Driscoll includes the early part of Hosea 11:1, which says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” It seems to work against the idea that this was prophesying about Jesus since it specifically mentions Israel – the chosen people of God who left Egypt way back in the book of Exodus.

But beyond the correct context for Hosea 11:1, it seems safe to believe that NT authors, with the OT right in front of them, wouldn’t write their narratives about Jesus in such a way that includes all the passages they believed were referring to Jesus (e.g. Matthew including the birth story of Jesus’ parents departing to Egypt, etc.). No, I’m negating the possibility that these events could have actually happened; they certainly could have. But what I’m at least casting some doubt on is the absoluteness of Driscoll’s argument. It could have been a literary move on the NT authors’ part to include these OT passages.

Another set of passages Driscoll highlights is both Isaiah 53:9 and 1 Peter 2:21-22: “He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth,” (Isa. 53:9); “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth,” (1 Pet. 2:21-22). It seems quite obvious to me that Peter is simply copying the words of Isaiah to give his own words a little more authority. I certainly believe that Jesus was without sin, but not because it was prophesied that He wouldn’t sin or because Peter affirms that prophecy.

My whole point in bringing these about is because I don’t feel Driscoll (and others who follow similar lines of argumentation) are really giving the NT authors enough credit as writers. These prophetic statements in the OT do seem to be referring to Jesus, but maybe there was an added message that the NT authors were trying to send beyond a simple “prophecy-proof”? Maybe Matthew was implicitly saying that Jesus was greater than Moses by mimicking Moses’ birth narrative? Sure, both the “prophecy-proof” and the implicit statements could be happening at the same time, but we shouldn’t highlight the one aspect while overlooking the other, which I believe Driscoll has done.

What do you think, though? Does it help affirm your faith in Jesus knowing that there were many prophecies in the OT fulfilled by Jesus in the NT? Or do these passages function more as mythological stories that send underlying messages from the NT authors? Anyone from Near Emmaus (or anyone who reads their blogs) is welcomed to comment.