Sunday, July 20, 2008

Good News About God

God could use a better publicist these days. There's a lot of bad news about God going around. There are the usual suspects: religious militants, childhood diseases, Jesus being named as W's favorite philosopher, America's Got Talent. But perhaps one unexpected place he doesn't get enough credit is with regard to the gospel itself.

Early in the Gospel of Mark we are told that Jesus comes out of Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. Now, this could mean God's news for us. Or it could mean good news concerning God. I'm leaning more and more into the latter, to test it, to see if it changes my perceptions of things having to do with the gospel and God and salvation and all the rest.

This leaning is also informed by a shift in how I've been reading Romans for awhile now. Like many, I once read Romans from the perspective that justification by faith was the center of the message. That makes chapter 5, or perhaps chapter 8, the high point of the theology in the letter. Problem is, chapter 11 seems to be the climax of Paul's argument before the big "therefore" in 12:1. If one reads Romans this way, then the central theme is not justification by faith but the righteousness of God. Put another way, the good news is not so much about how it is that we get saved, but the good news is about the trustworthiness and wisdom of God.

We typically think of the gospel self-referentially. The gospel for many is that the death of Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins that allows us to inherit eternal life. If we're not careful, this turns the gospel into our private possession, a new status we receive. This is good news, to be sure, but I'm more and more convinced that this is a scrawny bit of good news over against the enormity of bad news we experience in this world.

Hang with me a minute here. I want to make two other, related I think, observations before I talk about how the good news might be more about God than it is us. (I probably won't get to that until my next post). These observations are not unrelated to the missional and emergent stuff we've been talking about in other posts.

One of my theological pet peeves (is that nerdy, or what) is that people can and do justify almost any practice by appealing to the incarnation. God connected with us by becoming human. We should connect with others too, ergo Christian pilates.

It is not simply good news that God became human, or not good news enough. The incarnation is about more than just the fact of God becoming flesh. The incarnation is also about where God became flesh. The social locations of manger, unwed mother's womb, Galilee, Calvary, and between thieves are all indispensable to the meaning of God's coming near in Jesus.

There is no such thing as a culture-less Christianity, or even a transcultural Christianity. The incarnation does make that clear. Cultural strategies with regard to Christianity, however, must be more nuanced than simply the attempt to connect with the spirit of the age. Incarnation is about more than just learning to speak in contemporary terms. The saving significance of Jesus, the good news about God, is precisely related to the neighborhood in which God pitched his tent. I agree with Douglas John Hall who insists that our reflection on incarnation always begin at the foot of the cross.

Second observation: I also hear a lot these days about the Trinity as a social model for the church. In its simplest terms it sounds something like this. God exists in community, so should we (ergo, small groups, Christian pilates, etc). But there is a significant sense in which the kind of community that God experiences as Father, Son and Spirit is very different from what we experience with each other and even with God.

As with incarnation, I want to begin trinitarian reflection at the cross. I want to begin with the silence of the Father in the death of the Son. Much of Christian theology through the centuries, influenced by Greek philosophy, has been concerned to protect the Father from the suffering of the Son. I think this results in skinny good news. I want a Father who draws into his very life the suffering of the world.

I think the death of the Son is an event in the life of the Trinity. It effects all three. It introduces true otherness into the communion of God. The resurrection of Jesus is good news about the Father (and the Spirit). The communion of God is open to those truly other than God--corrupt human flesh. To use Paul's language, God draws enemies into his love through the resurrection. The resurrection is good news for us. But it is first good news about God--Father, Son and Spirit.

Christian community is not primarily about intimacy--the kind of interiority experienced by Father, Son and Spirit--not primarily. It is first about the act of loving the other, loving the enemy. It is about the stranger. This is our pathway into communion with the Trinity and each other--the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I think this gives us a lot of good news about God.


Steve said...

Fabulous post, Mark.

Say, I took this class back in grad school called "Narrative Evangelism," and some of what you're writing sounds awful similar... =)

Steve Holt

Mark Love said...

Yeah, got me. But hopefully there's some new stuff as well. Like the trinitarian stuff is new-ish for me.

Do me a favor and light a fire under the Sox.