Sunday, March 3, 2013

Slow Cooked--1 Corinthians 10:1-13

How does smoked meat taste so good? Recently, I wanted to know a bit more about the process of smoking meat. There are plenty of articles, and I could have read one to learn more, instead I called Stacey Moss, who makes her living smoking meat at Savannah Joe's restaurant. She explained the process to me like this:

They begin with a Boston butt, a cut of pork that comes from the upper shoulder, and she said, the cut matters; it has to be a premium cut. They dry wrap it and season it before the process even begins. Then, they place the meat on the smoker in the evening and let it go all night. They use hickory wood to smoke the meat at 225 degrees. There is an electric rotisserie to rotate the meat, and the whole process involves great patience while the low heat slowly cooks the meat.

What does smoking meat have to do with 1 Corinthians 10? Our Lenten journey? Or, our Christian faith? In this passage, we have a negative example--one to avoid. When we look at examples of how we should live out our faith journeys, we can have either positive or negative examples. This one is negative, but it doesn't happen instantly. It happens over time, just the slow cooking process. The people at the church in Corinth who first read this letter were on a journey, and they heard about the way their ancestors acted. Learning about their past helped them live out their faith in the present; it works for us too.

It was George Santayana who said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

In 10:1, the references to being "under a cloud" and "passing through the sea" were about the Exodus. The Hebrew people were in Egypt and God delivered them, guiding them with a cloud and allowing them to pass through the sea. In v. 2, they were baptized into Moses through these experiences. Then, it says in v. 3, they ate spiritual food; this is a reference to the manna in the wilderness. V. 4 speaks of a spiritual drink. We are having spiritual food today, bread as part of our celebration of Holy Communion. We are having spiritual drink today, the wine of Communion, symbolizing Jesus' covenant, but the drink in v. 4 refers to the time in Numbers 20:11, when Moses struck the rock and water gushed out.

Then, in v. 5, there is a sharp shift. The process continues, but just like smoking meat, it is not an instant change. To get smoked meat, we do not put it in the microwave for a few minutes. It cooks slowly over night. After all God had done, and a brief bit of the list is recounted in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, in v. 5, we read (& the first hearers at the church Corinth heard) that God was not pleased with most of them. After all the Lord had done, they still turned away. We can learn how to live appropriately, but we can also learn what to avoid.

In our spiritual lives, we have examples. Some are examples to follow, like athletes who train hard in 9:24-27. Others are examples to avoid. They appear throughout the scriptures and can help us grow, over time. In 1 Corinthians 10, the examples from the Exodus are used to illustrate what we should avoid. In vv. 7-10, we have four specific types of behavior to avoid: making idols, sexual immorality, testing Christ, and complaining. Why these four? Because they were likely ones with which the Corinthians struggled.

What specific types of behavior should we avoid? What specific things do we need to have slowly cooked from us over time? How can we grow? The four in this passage are not a bad place to start. We all make idols. They can take many forms. Few of us actually carve out statues and worship them. Our idols today are more subtle. Anything that takes our time, attention, and resources and pulls us away from God can come frighteningly close to idolatry. Because we don't worship idols these days, we don't think of our idols as idols.

The second was sexual immorality. As far as behavior to avoid, this is a tricky one because it often goes publicly unnoticed. But, when one gets caught, it can really ruin lives. Children enter the world as a product of a short term physical relationship, and the child does not stand nearly the same chance as one who was born into a loving and stable family. Sexual immorality leads to the spread of diseases and can take far more destructive forms, including pornography, rape, and other illicit behavior. Any passing glance at the news reveals what a huge problem this is in today's world.

Testing Christ is not something you might think is a problem today, yet over and over again, in various ways, we put the Lord our God to a test. We are told not to do this in Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7, Luke 4:12, and again, here in 1 Corinthians 10:9. Exploring the ways we test Christ is a whole new topic; the point here is: don't do it.

Last, in this passage, is a prohibition against complaining. I've preached this point on numerous occasions. Once, I heard someone say, "I was going comment, but the pastor said to complain." There is a difference between grumbling, complaining and blatant negativity and positive, fruitful, productive dialog. This passage is addressing grumbling/complaining, not productive conversations that lead to greater growth together.

Yes, we could personalize the behavior to avoid, but it seems the list in this passage strikes pretty close to home. We can grow in Christ, slowly, over time, if we heed these vv.

God is at work in our lives. This applies to each one of us. None of us are done yet. We may think we are; we may think we have achieved a certain level of righteousness or spiritual intimacy; we may be proud of how much scripture we have committed to memory or how many degrees we have in theology (maybe the last one mostly applies to me), but God is still at work in our lives, slowly cooking us into the people we can be.

There is no ambiguity about one assertion in this passage: God is faithful. The letter to the people at Corinth adds, "God will not let you be tested beyond your strength." Some times we might feel like we are being pushed beyond what we are capable of handling, but just as God is faithful, God is still at work, testing and stretching us, helping us to grow through every experience we have. Some are rich and fulfilling, like positive examples of the Christian life. Others are difficult and take us far from our comfort zones. The difficult times are opportunities to grow.

Through it all, God is faithful.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book review--Everyday Theology & Religion and Violence

The following review appeared in Perspectives in Religious Studies. 35.3 (2008). The titles under review are:

Everyday Theology, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman. Cultural Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. 288 pp. $23.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-3167-0

Religion and Violence in a Secular World, edited by Clayton Crockett. Studies in Religion and Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006. 256 pp. Cloth $49.50. ISBN 978-0-8139-2561-5. Paper $22.50. ISBN 978-0-8139-2562-2

These two books address religion’s relationship to culture from different perspectives and for different intended audiences.  Both books are collections of essays written by different authors.  Everyday Theology treats religion and culture in broad terms, while Religion and Violence focuses on the narrower topic of philosophical and religious responses to violence in a post-9/11 world. 

In Everyday Theology, Vanhoozer, Anderson, and Sleasman have collected essays illustrating the practice of reading and interpreting cultural texts and trends theologically.  The book is most appropriate for evangelical pastors, seminarians, and college students, and it would be a useful text in a seminary course on Christianity and Culture.  Theologically astute laypersons would profit from reading it as well.  The essays are easily read, even if they are uneven in quality, and provide definitions for theological terms.

The first chapter, written by Vanhoozer, introduces the idea of theologically interpreting culture, framing the approach the authors of each subsequent chapter will take.  For Vanhoozer, theological interpreters of culture “look not to its causes but to its context” (22), and he devotes much attention to understanding the contexts of individual cultural texts.  Vanhoozer has a high view of the importance of culture and asserts that when different cultural messages are combined, they “communicate a vision of the meaning of life” (28).  Vanhoozer then presents a method for reading culture.

The subsequent chapters were originally term papers in a course taught by Vanhoozer.  Vanhoozer acknowledges the lack of professional credentials of the authors, but he sees it as a benefit because their inexperience illustrates the manner in which anyone can engage in cultural hermeneutics.  The origin also explains the disparate subject matter of the essays, which relate to each other only in their addressing cultural texts or trends.  Chapters two through six are about cultural texts, and chapters seven through ten concern cultural trends.

In each chapter, the authors adequately engage Vanhoozer’s cultural hermeneutics.  In chapter two, Jeremy D. Lawson presents a theological interpretation of the goods offered in Safeway, and in chapter three, Darren Sarisky critiques Eminem for failing to provide redemptive meaning and offers a Christian alternative.  Sarisky posits Christian rap as the best alternative (95), which is morally presumptuous.  David G. Thompson interprets the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1946 in chapter four.  Premkumar D. Williams follows the premise that “buildings themselves are expressions of culture” (114) and presents a hermeneutical examination of megachurch architecture in chapter five.  In chapter six, Sleasman finds “competing visions of hope” (143) in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and he provides one of the strongest examples of Vanhoozer’s cultural hermeneutics in the book.

Anderson examines the trend of increasing “busyness” in chapter seven.  He presents his case convincingly, but the author occasionally presents subjective language: “We must” and “we should” (166).  In chapter eight, Justin A. Bailey asserts the blogosphere is a way to connect with and discover cultural beliefs, and in chapter nine, Matthew Eppinette considers the trend of transhumanism.  Ben Peays interprets the trend of fantasy funerals as the secularization of death in chapter ten.  Anderson and Sleasman write the final chapter, in which they “walk through the steps of theologically minded cultural exegesis” (228).  The book also includes all manner of helpful sidebars.

Religion and Violence in a Secular World, written in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, is most appropriate for scholars and students in religious studies.  The authors assume the reader will be familiar with philosophers (Derrida, Heidegger, Kant) and theologians (Heschel, Levinas).  Since specialized terms are not defined, the book might intimidate someone uninitiated in philosophical or theological cant.  Nevertheless, one versed in philosophy and theology will find the essays well-written, thoroughly researched, and relevant.

Clayton Crockett introduces the work with a lucid thematic description of the topics.  He interprets the terrorist attacks and the war on terrorism as a possible end of the nation-state, adding the obvious question “What next?”  The authors of this book offer varied analyses of the relationship between religion and the violence prevalent in America’s decidedly secular society.  Ten essays by a diverse group of respected scholars follow Crockett’s introduction.  The first six chapters are focused engagements with specific people or topics.  The last four chapters provide “constructive and visionary readings” (7) of religion and violence.

In the first chapter, B. Keith Putt contrasts Girard’s God of victim with Caputo in a section rightly titled “Mad Economy of a Foolish God” (30).  Putt concludes both Girard and Caputo would assert “Jesus would not do violence” (43).  Carl A. Raschke’s chapter “On Withes and Witch Hunts” interestingly identifies “witch hunts” as “a search for the real among what could not be named” (58), offering situations where a “witch” might be sought when accurate understanding of reality eludes us.  In the next essay, James J. Dicenso contrasts Kant’s Religion and his use of the phrase “radical evil” with modern understandings of “radical evil,” especially as they relate to violence and terrorism.

The fifth chapter, written by Eleanor Pontoriero, invokes Auschwitz as a backdrop to analyze Levinas’ approach to religion and violence.  In the next chapter, Martin Kavka uncovers the depth of Abraham Heschel’s theonomy and the manner in which hope can improve conditions in the West.  Both of these essays are particularly clear, which is no small feat in such strong company.  Caputo’s entry on Derrida and a “democracy to come [which] calls for a new revolution” (153) is a powerful ontological investigation of the manner in which people seek power under the guise of democracy and in conflict with the Western idea of sovereignty.

Noëlle Vahanian explores the idea of “institutional imagination,” which is “thinking that is not merely pragmatic…thinking that is pure thinking” (167), and its potential role in future solutions to world crises.  Edith Wyschogrod’s utilizes a fable about monkeys and elephants to illustrate creative solutions.  Jeffrey W. Robbins’ chapter concludes, the world is “simultaneously religious and secular” (201), and “there is no truly radical political theology” (195).  Robbins’ paradox grounds religious and societal polyvalency.

Richard Kearney presents the final chapter, aptly titled “Thinking after Terror.”  He analyzes religion and terror in a secular context and concludes that divorcing religion from approaching terror “signal an impoverishment of both our politics and our theology” (212).  Religion and Violence in a Secular World illustrates the necessity of a new political theology and the impoverishment of both politics and theology when terrorism and fighting terrorism takes the place of seeking creative solutions to complex problems.