The God who Rips the Sky

My friend Wesley Hill just preached on Mark 1 at our church.  He did a fine job demonstrating the OT connections in the scene of Jesus’ baptism.  The rending of the heavens echoes Isa 64:1 (in Jesus God is coming); the descent of the Spirit recalls Gen 1:2 (through Jesus God is re-creating); the pronouncement that “this is my beloved Son” is from Ps 2 (by Jesus the divine Kingdom has appeared); et. al.

I have preached on the texts before, and I left worship today haunted afresh by the theological imagery with which Mark begins and ends his narrative.

Giotto di Bondone, 1304-06. Christus Rex (from

When Jesus burst open the surface of those baptismal waters, heaven above burst open as well.  The rendering in the ESV of “he saw the heavens opening” is much too tame.  The verb for “opening” derives from “schizo” in the Greek.  The idea is to rip apart.  A whole was punctured that day in the cosmic ceiling.

Tthe verb reappears near Mark’s ending.  It’s what happened to the Temple curtain as the gasping, raucous death-cry of Jesus echoed from the perch of Golgotha.

Our God is a sky-ripping, curtain-tearing God.

This is a God who will not suffer barriers between Himself and His people.  This is a God who commits violence against obscuring boundaries.  This is a God who will tear heaven apart to get to his children.

We sometimes look skyward wondering where our God could be.  We wonder about his apparent absence, about that infinite distance stretching from the ground beneath our feet and beyond  the packed atmospheric layers up to some hidden realm veiled in faint starlight.

But do not forget that gaping gash overhead, edges dangling with tattered sky.  Do not forget the exploded wound above through which the Spirit descended on God the Son.

For those of us for whom divine distance is so acute we can touch it and smell it, our unglamorous (yet valorous) task is to lunge in our final shreds of hope toward One who has left an unpatched hole in the sky.  For those of us who are hiding from Him, consciously or even unconsciously slinking about in the cover of some shadow, we should beware—

No barrier is safe from a sky-ripping, curtain-tearing God.

Wes pointed us to Isa 64:1.  We can pray this prayer with Isaiah… and we can pray as those for whom the answer has come.  And will come again.

“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…” (Isa 64:1).

A Morning Prayer

Dear Lord,

I present myself afresh as one pledged to your service, as one for whom You paid too much, as an unlikely prize for whom You decided to fight hard and to the very end to make Your own.  I confess my position as Your possession.  In response to your hard fought ownership over me, I reaffirm my loyalty.

Yet this stage in my life feels unreasonably demanding.  It seems to cost too much.  It feels overpriced.  In fact, perhaps I’ve taken the wrong cup from Your hand.  Maybe there was another one less bitter, even if less full.  Or perhaps You extended the right cup to the wrong person.  Its sweetness is so delightfully sweet… but its bitterness so distasteful.

Forgive me.  What I mean to say is that I present myself afresh as one pledged to Your service.  Your demands are not as unreasonable as the exorbitant costs expended to gain me, as if a squirming, half-loyal, temperamental servant could be so treasurable.

As one stumbling in the haze, help me to stumble forward.

In Jesus’ Name,



Creative writing about life in the UK with 4 kids: “Lost in Translation” (by my wife)

Lost in Translation.

I took a writing course with Lauren Winner when I was at Duke.  Lauren’s a really good writer, and she did a great job assigning us the sort of creative writing assignments that really good writers tend to put themselves through… like tell a story only through dialogue or write the same scene from the perspective of multiple narrators or write a sentence evoking the emotion “love” without using the word “love”.  Well, in the linked post, my wife has given herself a rather unique writing assignment: describe your life in another English-speaking country using their indigenous dialect.

Really, really good.  Check it out….

The Heartbeat of “Hopeful Realism”: Already… but not yet / Coming… and now is

The namesake of this blog is taken from a phrase my wife supplied as she carefully read through drafts for Faith Without Illusions.  Hopeful Realism is a perspective that holds rosy idealism and shallow optimism as incompatible in an ex-Eden world (hence, “Realism”).  But the perspective is “hopeful” because it holds that cynicism is incompatible with a pre-Parousia world.  That Jesus will make all things new drains cynicism of its legitimacy.

The Resurrection is the premise for a hopeful realist.  That Christ punctured a hole in Death’s impenetrable ramparts and then walked through it signals that something freakishly amazing is underway—the system (of evil) has a virus.  Not only is our world ex-Eden and pre-Parousia, but invaded by the powers of New Creation.  The hopeful realist has ground for hope not only because of Jesus’ forthcoming return, but because mysterious Resurrection powers at work even now, enlivening (cynic-)saints for divine service and seeping into darkened souls whose eyes are on the verge of opening wide.

So eschatology is critical for understanding idealism, realism and cynicism as perspectives in the life of faith.  If the idealists’ eschatological shout can be reduced to “now,” and the cynics’ eschatological cry reduced to “never,” the hopeful realists can claim “already… and not yet.”  I was reading the Greek text of John’s Gospel the other day and realized that the Johannine take on this can be rendered, “coming… and now is” (see Jn 4:23, 5:25).

The great challenge of the hopeful realist is to conjoin mourning with rejoicing.  We groan with creation (Romans 8:18-25) in longing for the day (the Day) when all things are made new.  We also rejoice that glimpses persist hinting that the newness is already underway.  Groaning and celebrating simultaneously—these are the honest joint disciplines for the hopeful realist in a world out of kilter, yet assured a new life.

NT Seminar at Durham (Epiphany Term) & the New “Integrated PhD Programme”

(my study space is a hole in one of these awesome walls)

Below is the list of papers and their presenters for the Durham New Testament Seminar this term.  I am very thankful that here at Durham the Seminar meets every week, rather than fortnightly (which is a great British way of saying “every other week”).  On the off-weeks not listed below, our NT Faculty members will be leading the doctoral candidates in translations and discussions of early Jewish and Christian texts pertaining to Scriptural interpretation (Selections from 4 Maccabees, Pseudo-Philo, and Qumran are on the roster).

I must say, I am quite pleased to see two seminars directly concerned with John’s Gospel (my field of research).  As a PhD candidate with a thesis project I deem worthwhile and exciting, it is both thrilling and intimidating to see a scholar of Prof. Bauckham’s rapport writing on something similar!  I am sure to learn much by Easter….

16 January: Dr Wendy Sproston-North, “The Anointing in John 12.1-8: A Tale of Two Hypotheses”

30 January: Prof Francis Watson, “Prologue” to Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective

13 February: Prof Richard Bauckham (Emeritus Professor, University of St Andrews), “Divine and Human Community in the Gospel of John”

27 February: Dr Rodrigo Morales (Humboldt Research Fellow, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, Munich), “1 Corinthians 6.9-20 and Baptismal Participation in Christ”

12 March: Dr Martin Kitchen, “Reading the Transfiguration: Characters and Plot”

The New Doctoral Programme…

Another exciting bit of news to pass on is that Durham’s Department of Theology is now offering a new option for potential PhD applicants.  The new “Integrated PhD” extends the traditional British doctoral program from 3 years to 4.  The clearest distinction between British and American PhD programmes is that the former does not require a list of courses but directs all emphases on a thick, specialized thesis to be completed after three years of research and writing under a primary and secondary Faculty supervisor.  The American program is usually 5 years long, with the first 2 years devoted to coursework and a considerable amount of time focused on taking a range of “comps,” or competency exams.  The result is that the longer American route is deemed more well-rounded, and the shorter British path a bit more specialized.  Here in the UK, it is assumed that British PhD candidates will have already developed the competencies tested after a couple of years in the American system.  The reality for American students entering a British program is that many of us are lagging behind, especially in terms of skills in German and French.

For this reason, it has become standard for the British programmes to expect of American applicants another Masters’ degree in addition to the M.Div.  Durham’s new Integrated PhD is essentially an MA + PhD program, but students who are accepted will presumably get to avoid the stressful (and costly) process of re-applying for the doctoral course (as well as for the visa).  The programme makes great sense and would be ideal for U.S. students who are interested in studying in the U.K. but have yet to gain enough confidence and clarity for a proper research proposal (a, if not the, major component in the application process) and need a bit more confidence in the area of languages and background material.

If you are so compelled to torture yourself with doctoral studies (like me), then this is a great option to look into!

Faith Without Illusions at Euangelion

I check the biblioblog Euangelion at least a few times each week.  I had met Joel Willitts before, so I decided to sheepishly ask if he would consider taking a look at my book on cynicism for a possible review (giving him the freedom to review it badly if necessary, of course!).  He posted his comments earlier today, and you can click the link to Patheos (which hosts the blog) to check it out.


I really appreciate Joel’s emphasis on my conviction that cynical, jaded, and disillusioned Christians may be the most suited demographic to bring reform to the church in the West… if they forsake their  cynicism.

The folks God so often enlisted in His program to reform Israel were not idealists reeking with cheery optimism and full of trite platitudes for the downtrodden.  The prophets, sages, and tragic-poets of Israel were often trodden down themselves by the very people they were called to love and embrace.  But God’s call on them demanded a movement away from a disengaged cynicism.  The modern-day cynic-saint  is someone who discards their idealism but not in exchange for an embittered vocation of deconstructing the messed up people of God.  They embrace a realism that will be grim at times, but ever hopeful of a breaking dawn….


Initial Thoughts Re: Twitter

“Follow.”  That’s the word you click with the trackpad to connect with someone.

“Follow” is a loaded word for Christians, but yeah—I am probably reading too much into it.  Not many people are following me anyway, so I don’t have to feel that presumptuous.  But then I have the problem of not knowing what in the world I am going to offer any of those who assume clicking “Follow” for “@Byers_Andy” is a worthy move.  Honestly, this is a problem for me.  I signed up for Twitter to try to sort out what it does and how it would affect the way I interact and communicate.  So far, I have found it helpful in directing me to a number of interesting articles.  That’s great.  But if signing up for Twitter means you are going to Tweet, I am afraid I am a poor citizen in the domain of that silhouetted blue bird.

I should not be that surprised at my poor performance on Twitter.  I signed up for Facebook when I entered my second stint as a college pastor, assuming I should succumb to the way of things and get in touch on the terms of the 20somethings under my pastoral care.  That was over three years ago, and I have yet to really catch on to that social medium either.  I have gotten better about doing status updates.  I should admit, however, that it seems as though half of my updates are links to my most recent blog posts.  My guess is that many of my (eventual) Tweets will serve a similar purpose.

So my limited social media experience is limited to promoting my other media products: blog posts, and sometimes my book.


Or is it?


But maybe not. (But probably).

Surely there are biblical grounds for finding an outlet when you believe you have something helpful and edifying to voice…?  Follow me.  Where?  To something else I have written that extends beyond 140 characters.

I wonder about the prophets.  I’ve written about their embrace of a vocal vocation.  Crying out in the city streets (or in the outlying wild) may well have seemed a presumptuous move.  But that fire needed release from the quivering bones.  And then there is Paul’s emphasis on spiritual gifts.  They are to flourish in the church and for the church.   In John 7, Jesus’ brothers are in the know when it comes to celebrity marketing—you gotta be in the right place at the right time to gain a following, meaning Jerusalem during Feast-time.  Jesus shrugs off their counsel, yet shows up a few days later in Jerusalem at Feast-time.  A curious portrayal, perhaps, of fine lines along slippery slopes.

The church, the city street, the desert, the Temple—locations of edifying speech.  The space in which helpful words are publicly aired.  Church, street, desert, Temple…


A strange “place.”  But when someone clicks on “Follow,” the underlying assumption is that you are going somewhere… some place.


Twitter: still trying to figure you (and me) out.

Reader: your comments are invited.