I would have preferred an inn.

I just read a fantastic article by Ian Paul exploring the word “kataluma”, which is typically translated “Inn” in English bibles. His contention is that Joseph and Mary were not shut out of finding a hotel room. Rather, they were unable to have the privacy of the guest room in the house in which they were staying. As a result, Mary gave birth in the living/dining room – where the mangers were kept – surrounded by a throng of Joseph’s family who had come to Bethlehem for the census. Click on the link below to read the article.


playmobil-nativityThis morning, my daughter asked if she could set up our Playmobil nativity set, which shows a sparse scene of Mary and Joseph, with a shepherd and a few wise men. (Trust me, it looks way less impressive than the marketing picture I just ripped off.) What if it instead showed a warm home, full of family members, packed to the gills – so many people that a woman couldn’t give birth with any sense of privacy? Numerous men would be outside in the dark, talking about the weather. Throngs of women would be inside, busying themselves with boiling water and ripping sheets, or whatever it is they do when prepping for a birth. Imagine being a shepherd and showing up at THAT. Sweet baby Jesus is silent simply because no one could hear him over the din.

Kinda makes Christmas with my relatives seem tame…


A tale of two Messiahs

Most of us raised in church were taught that there were certain things that the Jews more or less all expected of their Messiah. Yet when Jesus came, the story goes, he was different than the common understanding, and they couldn’t see beyond their own dogma and expectations to see that their Messiah had actually come.

But the Jews didn’t have a uniform belief in what the Messiah would look like. There were all kinds of opinions floating around about the Messiah.

The word Messiah is Hebrew, and it merely means “anointed one”. You’d think this word would occur lots of times in the OT, but it does not. As a formal title applied to a person, it only appears twice in Daniel 9:25-26. As a description, it occurs more or less 37 times, and describes special people chosen by God – “messiahs” were kings, they were the patriarchs, they were prophets, they were the judges. Samuel is described as “messiah”, as are a few priests.

All that to say that in OT times, they did not use the word “Messiah” very often, and certainly didn’t use it in the way we do these days. The Christian understanding of Messiah is colored by what Jesus taught his disciples. Luke 24:25-27 shows how Jesus went through and taught about how the Old Testament scripture speaks of him as the coming and anointed one. As should be obvious to any reader of scripture, Jesus’ use of the term Messiah was different enough from common expectation that it caused a lot of confusion.

The Jewish understanding of the Messiah as a single person started to emerge after the exile and in the intertestamental period, and each different group had its own brand of messiah. The Sadducees had theirs, the Pharisees had theirs, the Essenes, Zealots, Sicarii, Samaritans, and more.

In general, each of these groups had different specifics about the messiah, though they shared a few commonalities. The understanding of the messiah at the time of Jesus was not uniform. Here are a few points to contrast:

  • The Messiah came to undo the curse of Adam. The Messiah would start to return the world to the Edenic state. Paul, as far as we can tell, was the first to call Jesus “the new Adam”, which emphasizes a return to Eden, but the idea of starting to undo the curse was from the contemporary Jewish culture.
  • The Messiah is the second Moses. The Messiah will lead people into a second exodus, but better and surpassing the old one.
  • The Messiah is the David of the future. He is king and he sets things right in the land, fulfilling God’s covenant and ushering in the renewed coming of God. But even here, what is means to be the “David of the future” is not uniform. For instance, being the David of the future:
    • Is a special kind of God’s servant. The Messiah exercises God’s judgment as God shows him how to judge. This is the Messiah’s primary royal function.
    • Is a conquering king. He will drive out the pagans and the gentiles and purify the land and set the Jews as the supreme power and authority on the Earth.
    • Is the branch of Yahweh and he is righteous. Sometimes we think of this as being a branch of David, but that was not a common view of the Messiah. Yes, he was from the line of David, but he was a branch of Yahweh.
    • Is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head.

Many of these separate beliefs were wrapped together in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus as the Messiah. But, there are a few things you don’t see here. You don’t see the Messiah being God himself. Instead, the Messiah brings God, who sets up an eternal kingdom, but the Messiah is not divine. We only see the hint of a divine Messiah in the OT because the NT authors have shown us how to read the OT verses to see him there, but this was far from a common understanding in Jesus’ day. You also don’t see a Messiah who suffers and dies. A dead Messiah was considered a failed Messiah. In the common belief of the time, the Messiah was not immortal, but during his lifetime he was supposed to be successful in all he undertook.

But what about the way in which the Messiah was to come into the world? It turns out that beliefs about the coming of the Messiah can be boiled down into two major camps. One way was by being born in Bethlehem and announced – dramatically – as the coming son of David. The other way was to be hidden in the world, but not realized until some special event that would usher in “the end”; the most popular thought was that Elijah would return to announce and anoint and unveil the Messiah. (As a side note, this highlights the importance of the transfiguration, where Jesus cavorts with Elijah and Moses, calling to mind the popular belief that Elijah would anoint the messiah. Instead God himself announces Jesus as his son.) This “hidden messiah” has rabbinic roots prior to the first century, and a strong presence in first century materials such as Enoch and 4 Ezra, etc..

All of the gospels talk about the coming of Jesus in BOTH of these ways. The hidden messiah motif (not to be confused with the Messianic Secret) is most present in Mark and John, since the fanfare of Jesus’ birth isn’t mentioned, and his hiddenness is a strong(er) theme. On the other hand, in Matthew and Luke Jesus is clearly born in Bethlehem and announced as the coming king. HOWEVER, the hidden messiah theme isn’t forgotten in Matthew and Luke – Jesus is hiding in plain sight, waiting to be unveiled before the people, and where people realize it early, he silences them. There’s even a sense of misdirection in how the gospels describe Jesus’ birthplace. He’s not from Bethlehem – not really. He’s from Heaven.

The upshot is that where he’s from (Heaven) and what he is (a hidden type of Messiah, beyond their imagining) is a mystery, despite the people who think they know where he’s from and call him the Messiah. Even when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, it’s clear that Peter doesn’t really understand why type of Messiah Jesus is. Jesus is both obvious and inscrutable. He takes his coat off and stands in the rain. He’s always crazy like that.

So as Christmas approaches, I’m struck by the confidence of people who want to define just exactly what this Messiah is. In one sense, they are announcing His coming – as the chosen one who will guide us into the better promised land. But in another sense, they are ignoring the mystery – the ways in which we see the truth of the Messiah’s coming in a mirror, dimly. They marginalize that the salvation He brings must be worked out with fear and trembling.

But I’m also struck by those who want to focus on the mystery of what the Messiah is. In one sense, they are embracing the enduring hiddenness of the Messiah – the one who continues to unveil himself throughout history. But in another sense, they are minimizing the confidence – that the Messiah was announced for those who have ears to hear, and that he continues to call people to himself.

It’s a tale of two Messiahs, laid in the same manger. In the Christmas season, as on every day, the challenge is to visit them both.

Captain Fantastic and the Myth of the Middle

captainfantasticBased on recommendations from friends and acquaintances, I recently rented and watched the movie Captain Fantastic. It’s a movie about a family who have chosen to live in the wilderness in an effort to avoid the toxic excesses of modern life. They hunt for their own food, live off the grid, and avoid consumeristic and materialistic ways of living. The six kids are highly educated (from quantum mechanics to Maoism), endure military-style physical training, and are completely ruled by their father, who is portrayed as tough-minded but caring towards his kids.

The movie opens with the family getting word that their mother, who is in a psychiatric facility for severe mental disturbances, has committed suicide. The father, despite the fact that he was explicitly not invited to the funeral, decides to take the kids out of the wilderness into the world of modern indulgences in order to fulfill his wife’s last wishes for her burial. Cue the clash of cultures between modern American life and Rousseauian family. They rob a grocery store, celebrate Noam Chomsky as if he’s some sort of Messiah, and crash the funeral armed with the righteousness of their own beliefs. The kids end up at their grandfather’s upper-class home, complete with backyard golf course and enough empty space to raise all of them. The kids, however, are disgusted by the unethical use of space and disgusting materialism of the property. The father is so outgunned by the power of his father-in-law’s wealth that he ponders leaving them in the care of their grandparents.

If I’m being completely honest, the movie is about raising children and specifically about how children are influenced by the strengths, fetishes, and foibles of their parents, but that’s not what I want to talk about. At the end of the movie, the father, Ben, comes to see how his radical behavior has effected his children and his ability to parent his children. The movie closes with Ben and his kids on a small (presumably organic) farm, in a humble farmhouse, and sending his kids to (gasp!) public school.

The message, I think, is that finding something in the middle is probably the best way to go. Large estates are wasteful. Retreating to the wilderness isn’t practical. So, let’s find something in the middle – maybe a small organic farm with no consumer electronics and participation in a community through school activities. The message is that finding something in the middle that you can live with is the reasonable option. If you find something in the middle you can follow your convictions, but you can also participate with power and agency in wider society. The middle is the best of both worlds. It’s the best place to be.

I call this the “Myth of the Middle”, because it’s a societal myth that we tell each other. In just about every discussion on just about every topic I’ve ever listened to, I hear people walk away and say something like “the truth is probably in the middle.” Because we’ve been taught that the middle is reasonable and safe. Honestly, the middle might be an okay place to be sometimes. For instance, you can abstain from alcoholic beverages, or you can be a drunkard. Or, you can find a middle ground where one or two drinks at a sitting is acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Overall, though, there are two problems with the Myth of the Middle. The first problem is that the poles of most debates are movable, and therefore finding this reasonable middle ground is dependent entirely on how you frame the debate to begin with. In the poorly drawn figure below, you can see what I mean. If you start with positions A and B, then “the middle” is substantially different than if you start with positions C and D. In fact, the middle solution in either group isn’t even in the realm of possibility for the other group! Which is the reasonable and safe middle ground? Things can get even crazier if the poles of the debate shrink (E and B below). The middle ground suddenly seems to be more tilted towards one side than the other.


The movie Captain Fantastic falls prey to this. One side is extreme materialism, the other is radical communalism. But the poles were chosen to facilitate the desired conclusion in the movie. The movie Cider House Rules does something similar.

I’ve heard people say that political parties in America have fallen prey to this same way of thinking. When a party tries to become more moderate (moving towards the middle), the opposing party can move their position so that the middle ground more and more favors them. I believe this is evident in the ways the Tea Party and their like have moved the Republican party to the right, and correspondingly, the middle between the parties moves more and more into conservative territory. That’s one of the reasons that I think healthy debate at the wide poles of the issue are a good thing. It’s one of the reasons that Bernie Sanders was such as intriguing candidate in the last election cycle – he pushed the democrats back to the left and forced a rethinking of what middle position might actually look like.

Which leads me to the second problem with the Myth of the Middle – it may not reflect truth. Categories like “best” are subjective, but I think we can all agree we should be looking for the best solutions, not just the middle ground in a debate. The truth often lives outside of the positions that are common in our American life. The truth might be in the middle, but that’s more often a happy accident than a strategic outcome. And yet most people continue to strive for the middle because it’s safe. It makes them seem reasonable. It diffuses the emotions that charge tightly held positions in a debate. It can usually be arrived at quickly. But it’s a false sense of reasonableness, because being in the middle only placates people, it doesn’t usually drive things forward. I’m on a quest for truth, whether or not the poles of the current debate support it. And I’m on a quest to convince people to give up less effective ways of arriving at truth, so that we can quest for it together. This is an arduous quest, it takes time and effort and patience in so many ways, but I’m convinced it’s the way to great things.


Notes from the Archives: Obedience as Capital

christmas_serviceThis year, Christmas falls on a Sunday. If you’re like me, it’s probably crossed your mind as to whether or not you should suit up the family and go to church. Maybe just going to Christmas Eve service will be enough? Maybe I can do a little devotional in my pajamas with the family? Maybe I can play Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and pretend it’s about Jesus?

If Jesus is the reason for the season, then not going to church when Christmas is on Sunday just seems – I don’t know – disobedient? I get the impression that most Christians believe all that obedience they did during the year will be tarnished if they don’t go to church on this singular day.

I’ve become convinced this is a really bad way to think about obedience.

It doesn’t take much pondering to realize that we live in a consumeristic culture, and it may have affected us in ways we don’t quite realize. We live in a culture where people stand in line to get the newest iPhone, or the “hot toy” of the season (what is it this year?), or to see the blockbuster movie. I’m not a line-stander myself, but it seems telling that we have a subculture of being the “first” to consume something, even though it is literally identical if you wait a week and avoid the line.

When you are a consumer, everything exists for consumption. The Bible changes from a complex book full of paradoxes, poems, and stories about how God interacted with humanity into a book that is a list of rules and commands that you can consume to have your “best life now”. When evangelicals with this consumeristic mindset want to grow their church, they go to scripture to mine out principles that can be consumed to get a larger congregation. They go to books like Acts and develop “10 Principles of a Growing Church”, and they believe that by using scripture that they are being Biblical. In this model, scripture was USED; it was consumed for gain. The book of Acts isn’t a how-to book on growing the Church. Acts is the story about how the Holy Spirit worked to spread the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome in the first century CE. Pretty much the only principle from Acts is that churches grow when the Holy Spirit is there.

But consumerism can’t exist without capital to fuel the consumption. And, since everything is fit for consumption, everything can be used as capital. For instance:

  • Money – dollar bills – are the baseline capital in the USA. We spend lots of time trying to figure out how we can get more money. We read books and listen to podcasts on how we can manage our money to our benefit.
  • We use time as a type capital, and we exert effort managing our time to be more effective so that we have more time to do what we really want to do.
  • We use knowledge as a type of capital. We use our training, our college degrees, our certifications, our experience as a kind of currency to get jobs, or to get better jobs that give us more money or more time or more knowledge. And then we use that as capital to get even better jobs. But, you know, it’s not always what you know, it’s who you know, so…
  • Relationships become a kind of capital. These days we call this “networking”. Websites have sprung up all over the place so that people can network to get a better job, or to rub elbows with powerful people, or get a good deal on something that we want to buy.

There are probably a dozen more things that we use as capital in our culture, and they’re not all fundamentally different from how the cultures of the Old and New Testament used them, but the extent to which we use all kinds of things as currency would be inconceivable to them.

What I’d like to focus on is obedience, because I believe we try to use it as capital or currency. When we read the Bible, our tendency is to look for things we can do to get good things for ourselves. Scripture can certainly be used this way if you try hard enough. Psalms 1:6 says, “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” Psalm 5:12, Psalm 34:17-19 (need I go on?) say something similar, which is to say that if you do good things that God will give you good things. In a consumeristic culture like ours, which uses all sorts of things as capital, obedience tends to turn into a currency as well. Obedience to all of the commands that we can find is like depositing something into the bank. If we obey by giving generously, that’s like obedience money in the bank. You helped your neighbor? Money in the bank. You bought a poor Namibian family a goat for Christmas? Money in the bank. You come to church, and read your bible, and teach Sunday School, and sing in the choir, and go on a mission trip? Money in the bank, baby.fat_stacks

When things don’t go our way, those with this mindset want to take these fat stacks of obedience and cash them in for special attention from God. When obedience is used as a currency, prayer becomes this sort of swap that takes place between our obedience and God’s blessings. Many of us have this subtle, almost hidden belief that we can use our obedience somehow to convince God to give us blessings; obedience is a capital we can use to consume divine favor. We believe that we can convince God through our obedience to help care for our ailing loved ones. We believe that a life of stored-up obedience can be exchanged for favor with God so that he can help us find a job. We try to exchange our pious efforts for a life that’s peaceful and prosperous.

Those of us who’ve tried this (and I’m one of them) quickly realize that things don’t always work this way. Sure, maybe it works for a little while, maybe it works in fits and starts, but the reality is that God makes it rain on the good as well as the bad.

Guess what? Sometimes a Godly man gets depression.

Guess what? Sometimes a faithful mother loses a child.

Guess what? Sometimes a faithful Sunday School teacher and a hard worker gets injured and has a terrible time making ends meet.

Guess what? Sometimes someone who remains sexually pure until the wedding day can have a troubled marriage. (Yes, I’m looking at you, True Love Waits people.)

When things like this happen, no amount of obedience seems to make a difference, and it makes God seem unreasonable and distant and cruel. We believe that we’ve got these bank accounts full of obedience, but God doesn’t seem to care. Our capital is worthless. So, we end up bitter and disillusioned with God and confused about what to do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that serving God is a good thing, but what I’m trying to highlight is that Christianity isn’t just some sort of moral exchange. Any god from which you can buy favors for acts of obedience is a childish god. It’s time for us to leave behind this childish and immature view of God and move on to mature, adult, nuanced views of God. It’s time for us to call this idea of using obedience as capital for what it is – idolatry and wickedness. It’s time for each one of us to dig up the roots of this immature view of obedience in our lives.

And so, as I consider why I feel weird about maybe not going to church on Christmas day, I realize that this idea of obedience as currency has weaseled its way into so many things that I don’t even realize. Someplace inside of me – a place I don’t want to acknowledge – thinks that I’ll somehow curry more favor from God by attending a Christmas service.

The world doesn’t need more “obedience”. At least, not the kind used as capital. The world needs more faith working itself out in love, because THAT’S where great obedience starts.