A beautiful old hymn, Abide with me, offers this prayer, “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” And yet both individual Christians and the universal Church are called to transformation, made new and changed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. We are changed by the changeless One.
Transformation and reformation are the main focus of the latest Horizons, the magazine for Presbyterian Women. The November/December 2009 edition is entitled “The Transforming Church.” The editors begin well with their choice of articles but lose their way as several authors confuse transformation with conformity. I will look at several articles about transformation but also include thoughts on the Bible Study Resource in this edition.
Transformation from a biblical point of view:
The lead article, “An invitation to Transformation,” by Rita Boyer, begins with the biblical understanding of transformation. Speaking of Christian transformation in community she writes, “I want to know how lives are changed because of Christ’s presence in that particular community of faith.” She looks at the early disciples’ transformation.
In the event that would change all of their lives, and ours, death was changed to life. A frightened band of clueless and bewildered disciples were transformed into those who would give of their lives proclaiming the truth and power of the Gospel.
Boyer, in the midst of her article, switches from looking at how Christ transforms the church to how churches become transformational. She list questions that church leaders might ask themselves. For instance, “What if the term ‘church growth’ began to mean more than numbers?” Another question is “What if we stopped doing things just because they have become entrenched in the church’s calendar and annual report?”
Boyer’s article is a good one; it has a biblical foundation and practical, helpful questions. But Tonya Wagner’s article about an alternative church, “Wicker Park Grace,” fails in its message of transformation.
Conformity rather than transformation:
The Wicker Park Grace community, in Chicago, whose pastor is Nanette Sawyer, is an alternative community for those who feel alienated from the traditional church. The author of the article, who attended Wicker Park Grace, relates experiences of her first visit:
During the service I spotted a loaf of sweet bread and a tall, thin glass carafe filled with grape juice on a small wooden table off to the side of the room. I presumed that at some point during the service communion would be served. To my surprise, the service ended with the provisions still at the table. Before the sending, Nanette picked up the bread and juice and set them next to the coffee, tea and doughnuts and said, ‘This is where the real church begins. Stick around, hang out, have something to drink and a snack.”
Wagner explains that the pastor “has worked to establish a radically welcome—even divinely hospitable—space for people to commune with each other and with God.” The author further explains that the goal is to have a people “who share ‘a center but not a boundary.’” They find their unity in their “willingness to question.”
In a small box the Editors of Horizons invites the reader to explore the web site of Wicker Park Grace. There one finds a community that is not transformed in the manner intended by God’s word. Instead, the members are encouraged to accept themselves as they are. At Wicker Park Grace, transformation means acceptance of pluralism, atheism and the homosexual lifestyle.
As the pastor explains in her book, Hospitality—The Sacred Art: Discovering the Hidden Power of Invitation and Welcome, “when we dwell in the solitude of the soul, we tap into a deep resource and become free of deliberating neediness. In this gentle fearless space we realize our intrinsic goodness and embrace our identity as unconditionally loveable and deeply interconnected with God, the life of life and the whole of creation.” (41)
The biblical picture of transformation, quite different from Sawyer’s, is given by Paul in the twelfth chapter of Romans. He urges believers to present their bodies to God as “a living and holy sacrifice” for worship, commanding them to “not be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of” their “mind.” In doing this they would “prove what the will of God is,” that which “is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The next two chapters of Romans explain what sacrifice and transformation mean. The text is practical, urging such actions and attitudes as turning with abhorrence from evil while holding on to the good. Devotion to prayer, empathy toward others, not paying back evil but instead caring for enemies, all are included in the actions of transformed believers. The last several verses of Romans 13 look toward Christ’s return and admonish:
The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, nor in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regards to its lust.
This is transformation that begins with an acknowledgement of sin rather than intrinsic goodness and finds its power and grace in the cross of Jesus Christ.
The unreformed descendents of John Calvin:
What is undoubtedly considered a very important article for Horizons is “John Calvin: Reformed and Always Reforming,” by Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York. The article is reprinted with permission from Beliefnet.com. Jones is not attempting to make a Christian or biblical statement about transformation with this article. But she does aim it toward the idea that “the Reformed tradition is always reforming.”
Jones attempts to connect Calvin to a wide assortment of religious and philosophical descendents, writing that the “sheer diversity of religious institutions and denominations held within the spectrum of traditions called ‘Reformed’ is mind-boggling.” One has to admit at least that Jones’ list of such institutions and persons is mind-boggling but hardly in the reformed tradition.
Jones picks Pastor Rick Warren and Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, writing of the latter that he “preaches powerfully about the need to call ourselves to collective accountability, recognizing the profound depths of our sinfulness and refusing to judge others or create new margins of exclusivity, but instead, opening up to the grand gifts of God.” She continues on with Jeremiah Wright and finally jumps to the secular humanists.
Jones looks at three “core commitments” that she believes this diverse group shares. The first is a paradox that humanity is both a reflection of the glory of God and sinful. The second is the “claim that when you engage the world you have, at one and the same time, to be an ardent realist and (again a paradox) to have utopic expectations.” The third core commitment is that as faith people (I am not sure where secular humanism fits in this) making an idol out of religion is one of the greatest dangers.
Having said all of this, Jones believes that our gift to Calvin is to go beyond the categories of right, left and secular humanism and in our social dialogue learn “to drink from different wells and to reflect seriously on the insights we might learn from Islamic Sharia and from Buddhist notions of silence and breath.” But one must backtrack and see what Jones has omitted that eliminates the call for biblical reform which for a Christian involves transformation.
The core of Calvinism, which is also the core of orthodox Christianity, is that the image of God in humanity is marred, marred beyond human help, because of a fall. There is no paradox. God created what was good, human sin brought it to ruin. And there is no utopia, no hope, without the cross. If we attempt to bring hopefulness or the Kingdom of God into society without the cross of Jesus Christ, in the end we will bring ruin. Unforgiven, untransformed humanity over and over creates totalitarian utopias. There is only one ultimate and real gift, the gift of new life given by the death of the Lord of creation, Jesus Christ.
A Study in unfaithfulness:
Turning from the subjects of transformation and reformation I want to write some about this particular edition of the Horizons Bible Study Resource. It is written by Dr. Uriah Y. Kim, who is professor of Hebrew Bible at Hartford Seminary. He has also written a commentary on Deuteronomistic history entitled Decolonizing Josiah. The editorial description includes these words:
In the prevailing view, the Deuteronomistic History is the first and archetypical Western history, describing the creation of an Israelite state in Palestine as the origin of civilization in the region, a hegemonic culture rendering the other inhabitants of the country homeless in their own land. That view of Davidic domination over greater Palestine, fashioned under Josiah, has been given a modern nationalist reading by contemporary scholars, a reading consistent with the vast array of covert cultural confirmations of Euro-American imperial power.
This is how a post-modern exegesis works: using the point of view of the person the post-modern scholar considers the oppressed in the text. God as subject is eliminated. This is liberation theology at its harshest and it terribly slants Kim’s views in the resource material.
The resources always cover two lessons. This time lesson four and five of the 2009-2010 Horizons Bible Study, Joshua: A Journey of Faith, by Mary Mikhael, is covered. Kim states one point that I agree wholeheartedly with. That is that “Thanksgiving is a holiday that allows us to reflect on the generosity of the indigenous people of this land and how each subsequent generation of immigrants were welcomed by those who preceded them.” But I think that several thoughts are missing in this first section which deals with Joshua 1:2-3, 10-15, and 5:10-12. God is actually eliminated from this lesson. He is the one who should first of all be thanked. He is the one who supplied food both to the Native American and to the newcomers, the Puritans.
But more importantly by eliminating God from the lesson Kim is able to write, “Just as the ancient Canaanites suffered violently under an extreme mentality, Native Americans have suffered great violence and loss as well.” As I have written elsewhere, the text must be addressed from the point of view of God who is the author of Holy Scripture. The text about the slaughter of the Canaanites is difficult because:
God tells Joshua and the tribes of Israel to slaughter all of the people in the cities they conquer. God not only gives the land to the tribes of Israel, he also uses them to punish the people of Canaan. This punishment comes after God waits four hundred years for the people of Canaan to repent.
These events are foretold in Genesis when God promises Abraham that his heirs will be like the stars of the sky. God also tells Abraham that his descendents will be slaves in Egypt but that after four hundred years they will return to Canaan. The word states, “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen 15:16b)
In Leviticus God pulls back the curtain, so to speak, and allows the Israelites to see why he is “casting out” the nations living in the land of Canaan. He has just listed all of the sexual sins and the sin of child sacrifice that the Jewish people are forbidden to practice. These include incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality and the sacrifice of children to the god Molech. The Lord then tells the Israelites, “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 18:24-25)
The clear words of Scripture allow us to see both God’s provision for his people and his judgment when they reject his words.
The second section of the lesson covers Joshua 6:1-8:28 and 10:16-11:23. The lesson is entitled “Can War be Holy? Understanding ‘Enemies.’” Here also Kim is insensitive and even unscholarly in his use of the scripture. Rather than dealing with the text from the point of view of other scripture he writes:
Why is there such a harsh treatment of others in Joshua? One possible explanation is that during the time Joshua was written, the rhetoric of ‘enemies’ was used as a fear tactic to get the people of the day to support the king [the good king Josiah]. Those who were disloyal would be made examples (7:25 and 10:26) and treated like ‘enemies.’ To demonize others in this way can be very problematic.
Kim goes on to moralize about his own view of the text and how we should be concerned that we are not rationalizing hostile motives to others just so we can destroy them while escaping our own guilt. The real text is simply dismissed as a ploy to get others to obey.
The hard work of exegesis is not done; God’s word is unfaithfully misused and Kim’s questions that follow must find answers in human experience. Sinners, which we all are, need the word of God applied to their lives. The Canaanites rejected the God of Israel and sinned against him for over four hundred years. They gave their bodies over to sexual fertility gods and goddesses. They burned their children in the arms of Moloch. We as finite creatures cannot make the kinds of judgments that God does and we find it hard to read the words of Joshua, but God judged and continues to do so.
We need to hear his words and receive his mercy in the compassion and love of our dying Savior Jesus Christ.
The song Abide with me speaks for the sinner, “Come not in terrors, as the King of kings/ But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings/ Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea/ Come, Friend of sinners, and thus ’bide with me.” May God transform his Church and make sinners into saints.