Monthly Archives: July 2008

Romans commentary (chapter three)

The third chapter of my running, preliminary commentary on Romans may be found here: chapter three.

These are some key points from Romans 3 that I discuss in my commentary:

1. I would not read an angry God who directly intervenes to punish into these ruminations by Paul. More, he seems to have in mind the need to hold on to a moral universe. One danger is to believe that unjust people will be able to practice their injustice without consequences. The other danger is to forget that God is a merciful God who above all else in relation to human beings desires wholeness and restored relationships.

2. “Sin” is about idolatry that manifests itself in injustice. By being under the “power of sin” Paul has in mind sin as a force outside of us (though it taps into and exploits our inner flaws) that shapes us and distorts our way of seeing and seduces us into worshiping idols. And this “worship” of idols leads to injustice. When Paul says we are “all” under the power of sin, his point seems to be not so much that each individual is (he has already alluded to the existence of genuinely just people) but that Jews and Gentiles as distinct populations are each equally liable to being under the power of sin (that is, idolaters).

3. When Paul states in 3:20 that no one will be justified (made whole, restored to healthy relationships with God and other human beings) by “deeds prescribed by the law” (or, “works of the law”), he emphasizes the peculiarly Jewish (and problematic) reduction of the law to particular rules especially useful for setting and sustaining boundaries (e.g., circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher eating). Such a tendency leads to a sense of entitlement and hostility toward Gentiles (contradicting the call to bless all the families of the earth), and of having leverage over against God.

4. The law helps give knowledge of sin (as idolatry) by providing various touchstones for when we cut ourselves off from God’s healing power. When there is injustice, that is a sure sign that our trust in God has wavered. When the communal wholeness prescribed by the law is violated, that warns us of the presence of idols in our midst. The law also points us to the reality of our liberator God who stands in contrast to all the other gods we are tempted to trust in.

5. When Paul asserts that the disclosure of God’s justice is “attested by the law and prophets” he is saying that scripture from the start has witnessed to how God discloses God’s justice – through acts of mercy and liberation.

6. Paul is saying that the problem of idolatry cuts across any possible lines of distinction. The (Gentile) lusters (Rom. 1) are idolaters, but equally so are the (Jewish) judgers (Rom. 2).

7. When Paul speaks specifically of Jesus’ blood as the means of “a sacrifice of atonement” “put forward” by God (3:25), he refers to Jesus’ life (“the life is in the blood,” Lev 17:14) as a witness to God’s justice.

8. God “put forward” Jesus’ self-sacrificial life in order to make clear with all with eyes to see the nature of God’s justice. When the Powers respond to this disclosure with murderous violence, they are exposed as idols. This exposure provides a means for liberation for their seductions. Then, the final expression of God’s commitment to Jesus as the expression of justice put forward by God comes when God raises Jesus from the dead, firmly establishing Jesus as the authentic revelation of the healing justice of God.

Romans commentary (chapter two)

This is the running, preliminary commentary on Romans two that is part of my commentary on the book of Romans as a whole. This first draft is based on a close reading of the text and will later be fleshed out with reference to the scholarly literature. Romans two

At the heart of my concern here is considering how Paul links together two kinds of idolatry – the idolatry of the Roman Empire and the idolatry of the law.  The “idolators” and the “judgers” both worship the creation rather than the creator with the consequence of ultimately serving violence and injustice rather than love and restorative justice.

Romans commentary (chapter one)

I am working on a non-technical commentary on Romans that emphasizes theology and ethics. The first step is simply to read through the book, closely, writing down thoughts as I go along. Then I will add insights drawn from commentaries (the commentaries I have read so far include, among others, those by Robert Jewett, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright). The third step will be to add reflections that apply the main ideas of Romans to our day.

Here is what I came up with on my first reading of chapter one.

We face a series of interpretive choices right from the start. What do we understand Paul to have in mind with his key terms “obedience,” “faith/faithfulness,” and “righteousness/justice”? What is the key problem Paul identifies in chapter one? I suggest that it is idolatry leading to injustice – and that he is especially concerned with challenging his readers (Gentile Christians living in Rome) to (1) remain free of empire-idolatry and (2) model for the watching world social reconciliation between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus (a new model for political existence).

Mennonite Pacifism and World War II

How does one stick to pacifist convictions during war time, especially a war with strong social acceptance? This is the issue Mennonites in the United States faced during World War II. I have written an essay, Civilian Public Service and Mennonite Pacifism, that addresses this question.

I suggest that the key elements in the ability of the young men of draft age to stay faithful to their convictions were the efforts made by their church communities to offer spiritual and material support. About 50% of the Mennonite young men who were drafted performed alternative service (they made up about 40% of all legally recognized conscientious objectors).

Though this was a difficult time for Mennonites in the U.S. in many ways, they emerged from World War II with their sense of identity intact. Many of those who performed alternative service became leaders in the churches in the years following–and exerted a powerful influence in deepening Mennonite pacifist commitments.


The Wavelength show on July 12 did not follow a particular theme. The play list is here. I played songs from newer records–at least records newer to my collection. I simply grabbed about 50 CDs from my pile of records that have been added to my library in the past several months.

I really enjoyed this show. I think it is a great example of how much great Wavelength-type music there is out there, and that it just keeps on coming.

I want to mention five CDs in particular that I played from and think are worth paying attention to.

Blaze Foley, Live at the Austin Outhouse. This record may be heard on line here.

Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy, Adieu False Heart. This record may be heard on line here.

Mary Gauthier. Between Daylight and Dark. Six of the ten cuts from this record (including “Thanksgiving,” the song I played on the show) may be listened to here.

John Trudell, AKA Grafitti Man. This record may be listened to on line here.

James McMurtry, Just Us Kids. This record may be heard on line here.

Noam Chomsky. The Chomsky Reader.

Everyone would agree that Noam Chomsky is an extraordinarily prolific writer. Beyond that, when we begin to evaluate his work, the controversies begin. I have no idea how many anthologies of his writings have been produced (a great many, I am sure). The Chomsky Reader was first published in 1987, so in some ways it is a bit dated. Other more recent anthologies of Chomsky’s political writings exist and may be better overviews of his thought. However, sadly, much of what The Chomsky Reader contains remains of much more than historical interest.

Personally, I believe that Noam Chomsky is a wonderful gift to those of us deeply concerned with applying our pacifist convictions to the real world. This book is a more than adequate starting place to get a sense of the way Chomsky cuts through American self-delusions about our military policies and our impact on the rest of the world. Chomsky’s reputation as a wild-eyed radical seems to rest on reactions by people who likely have read little of what he has actually written. If anything, Chomsky errs on the side of dispassion in his analyses. He is very factual in his discussions, and usually provides extensive documentation.

One of the major contributions this anthology makes today is to remind us that as noxious as the policies and practices of the present Republican administration might be, the policies and practices of earlier Democratic administrations have also wrought great destruction in the world (specifically, Chomsky discusses the Johnson and Carter administrations).

One element of Chomsky’s thought that impresses me a great deal is his rigorous use of moral convictions. Though the underpinnings of his moral rigor are not clearly revealed in this book, Chomsky has discussed in other contexts the influence of his Jewish up-bringing and the continued relevance for him of the witness of the biblical prophets he studied in Hebrew school.

One fruit of this moral rigor may be seen in Chomsky’s insistence that as Americans we have a powerful responsibility to hold ourselves to the same standards we use in evaluating other cultures (e.g., the “communists” during the Cold War and, he makes clear in more recent writings, the “terrorists” today). If we hold to objective moral criteria, we will reject injustice and oppression no matter who practices it–and we will especially take responsibility for stopping the unjust and oppressive practices of our own society.

Chomsky is often labeled as “anti-American,” clearly a slander that comes from those who want to avoid taking his analyses seriously. He is simply asking Americans to seek consistently to adhere to our stated values of equality and human rights.

In this collection, the essay I found most helpful was one he wrote in the mid-1980s comparing U.S. fighting in Vietnam and Central America: “Intervention in Vietnam and Central America: Parallels and Differences.” Again, reading this most helpful analysis would cure any opponents of current American practices of nostalgia for the old days when supposedly things weren’t so bad.

The other part of the book I want to draw attention is the section containing three essays under the rubric, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” These essays have a timeless quality that allows them, sadly, to remain as relevant to today as when they were first written.

Glenn W. Shuck. Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity 

Marks of the Beast: The Left Behind Novels and the Struggle for Evangelical Identity is a helpful and perceptive book, even if it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its subtitle. Shuck does a nice job of describing the basic content of the Left Behind books and the theological roots of the world view that the book series conveys.

A strength of the book is how Shuck’s analysis makes clear the deeply reactionary theology underlying LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ vision of Christianity. However, in doing so, Shuck evokes questions about how exactly what is clearly a fundamentalist sensibility relates to the broader evangelical coalition in North American Christianity. At times, he does help the reader see the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism–but this makes his claim to speak to the “struggle for evangelical identity” more problematic.

I would have appreciated a sharper theological critique as well as more effort to place the Left Behind phenomena in the context of America’s embrace of the myth of redemptive violence. However, I recommend the book to anyone interested in a careful, objective yet critical, and perceptive analysis of what is certainly a major cultural and religious phenomenon.

Eric Hobsbawm. On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy

When Eric Hobsbawm writes about empire and the United States, people with strong interests in peacemaking should pay attention. The nice thing about his 2008 book, On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy is that it is short, sweet, and to the point. This book includes four concise essays, totaling 91 pages–small, with lots of white space. So it’s a quick read. That does not mean that it’s lightweight, though.

Hobsbawm, who was born in 1917 and still remains a keen interpreter of current events and their historical contexts, compares the American empire with the British empire. As his classic one-volume history of the “short twentieth century,” Age of Extremes shows (along with many of his other works), he is not fan of the British empire. But he sees the American empire as even more problematic.

However, On Empire is not a polemic so much as a brief but perceptive taking account of the recent past, present, and possible future of America’s militaristic imperialism. Hobsbawm argues against the efficacy and moral legitimacy of “humanitarian armed intervention.” He points out that with the emergence of ever-stronger drives for self-determination among the world’s people, “would-be empires can no longer rely on the obedience of their subjects….[Hence,] there is no prospect of a return to the imperial world of the past, lel alone the prospect of a lasting global imperial hegemony” (pp. 12-13).

The impossibility of the U.S. sustaining its global hegemony should be encouraging news. However, Hobsbawm (who indeed does think it is good news) also points out the bad news: “There is now…a complete absence of any effective global authority capable of controlling or settling armed disputes” (pp. 24-25). That is, we have no basis for optimism in the foreseeable future that we have much hope of solving the violence problem.

This book is not a call to arms so much as a pessimistic but insightful snapshot of our current situation. It’s readable and seems trustworthy.

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

Christian theology has not been as attentive to the Holy Spirit as it could be.  I know that I have not been exposed to very many helpful reflections on this theme.  As I have worked at my own understanding of the Holy Spirit, I have been impressed with two crucial themes: the Holy Spirit is best seen as integrally involved in the creation and sustenance of all life and the Holy Spirit is best seen as fully complementary with the life and teaching of Jesus.  That is, our pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit) links closely with our christology. 

These two themes (the Spirit active in life and the closeness between Spirit and Christ) shape my essay, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

This essay is the fourth in a series that examines core Christian doctrines, consistently asking what shape they should take if they are articulated in light of Jesus.

Wavelength 7/5/08

The theme for the July 5 Wavelength was “Songs for Texas.” Here is the playlist. I had fun pulling together the songs for this show.

I recently upgraded to a new iMac desktop computer with a lot of space on the hard drive. I am in the process of putting my entire CD collection on the computer which will make it much easier to search for songs for the show. I scanned through the titles of all the songs (I have about 26,000 songs now and will end up with probably about 40,000 when every thing is transferred) and found about 120 that seemed to have something to do with Texas.

From that initial group, I selected probably 35 or so songs that I knew for sure I wanted to play. I eliminated a number of duplicate versions and for a few artists I whittled down the possibilities to three songs each (due to government regulations concerning radio programs streamed on the internet, I can only play three songs from any one artist during the show). There were several songs that I wasn’t sure would work, so I listened to those and eliminated some that way. Eventually, I narrowed things down to 53 songs that I would take to the radio station.

I didn’t have a clear plan beyond playing as many of these 53 song as I could (I ended up playing 40, meaning 13 great songs were left out). There were a few people I ended up not playing that I should have (such as Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and Hayes Carll). But I was pretty happy with how the show turned out.

I ended up playing three songs each by Guy Clark and Terry Allen (plus a fourth song that Allen wrote that Robert Earl Keen played), and two songs each by Emmylou Harris, Robert Earl Keen, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. So I thought I would mention recommended albums from each of these artists.

Terry Allen, as characterized by All Music Guide, writes “words [that] aim to question and confront hard day-to-day realities, rather than offer conservative clichés or maudlin comforts to shield listeners from those very day-to-day realities. He does so with a humor and irreverence that will also find little sympathy in Nashville or Middle America.” His most highly regarded record is 1995’s Lubbock (On Everything). The songs from this record I played include the hilarious “The Great Joe Bob (A Regional Tragedy)” about a star football player gone bad, “The Wolfman of Del Rio,” kind of a tribute to Wolfman Jack’s early career but more a coming of age story about two young people who kind of find each other, and “Flatland Farmer” about real country music linked with life on the land.

Guy Clark is a contemporary of Terry Allen’s. Like Allen, Clark also grew up in west Texas. However, while Allen stayed there (in Lubbock), Clark relocated first to Los Angeles (that didn’t last long; his leaving L.A. was memorialized in his classic song “L.A. Freeway”), then to Houston. Clark has produced a long series of great, low-key, thoughtful records, but has never surpassed his first release, Old No. 1. Virtually every song on this record, first released in 1975, has become a classic–such as “Coat from the Cold,” “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” and–the song played on this show–“Texas – 1947.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard, who first gained notice as the writer of the drunken anthem “Up Against the Wall, Red-Neck Mother” in the 1970s, has made a name for himself in recent years as an extraordinarily thoughtful (and still funny) singer-songwriter. My favorite Ray Wylie record is his 2005 album, Delirium Tremolos. One of my favorite songs on this record, “Dallas After Midnight,” captures Ray Wylie’s sensibilities as well as anything he has done–kind of wild, reflective, portraying life in Texas at its grittiest.

I first learned of Robert Earl Keen’s music in the early 1990s when a friend of mind happened to hear Robert Earl’s song, “Corpus Christi Bay” on the radio. My friend told me this was one of those rare songs that you fall in love with the very first time you hear it and don’t expect ever to fall out of love with. On that recommendation, I purchased the CD that song was on, A Bigger Piece of Sky, and liked the entire record on first listen. “Corpus Christi Bay” immediately became my favorite of all the good songs on Robert Earl’s record. He has recorded many fine songs and records since then, but this song still remains my favorite. It’s a catchy song with a great story that combines humor and penetrating insight.

Emmylou Harris needs no introduction. She remains one of the greatest of Wavelength-type recording artists. I don’t think I can name a definitively favorite Emmylou record, but 1995’s Wrecking Ball is certainly near the top of the list.