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The Feast of God (serving up a heap of Death)

NOTE: This is a post I wrote some time ago, but since Thanksgiving is upon us once more, and since I really love Isa 25:6–10, a text I taught on in a lecture earlier in the week, I want to re-post.

Enjoy the feasting…

 

For Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of grateful feasting, a day when there is a greater ceremonial significance for the table, a day of solemn yet joyful reflection on divine goodness with fork and glass in hand.

Feasting can be holy.  We see Jesus regularly “at table,” as if affirming the dinner gathering as sacred time and sacred space.  For remembering and honoring Him, He gave us a meal—the grinding of unleavened bread with our teeth, the sweet touch of wine on our lips… “do this in remembrance of me.”

The holy feast has a long tradition for God’s people.  In Isaiah, we read about a special, eschatological feast:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,

of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. [Isa 25:6]

But while the mortal myriads sup such luxurious wine and munch on such a lavish, meaty spread, God Himself will be eating…

And He will swallow up on this mountain

the covering that is cast over all peoples,

the veil that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death forever;

And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces. [Isa 25:7]

While the redeemed and rescued are sitting at a sumptuous table celebrating salvation, God will be having His own meal.  Served at the feast of God is Death itself.  The massive jowels of the cosmic Lord will be grinding up the squirming, dying enemy of all flesh, that age-old foe so ruefully welcomed into a fresh, teeming world through another meal, a forbidden meal of fruit from an Eden-tree.  Splayed out on a platter and set before the hungry eyes of the Almighty, Death will be digested, perhaps singed to well-done by a consuming, holy fire.

Thanksgiving is a day to eat, drink, and be merry.  Christians ultimately do so not because they have a nice country in the U.S., but because a better country awaits, one in which the oppressive “covering” of Death will be crunched up and obliterated in the eschatological feasting of God.

To that, I say, “Cheers.”

Happy Thanksgiving, friends….

Cran

I have a Job…

I report with trembling and gratitude that I will soon begin serving as the “Free Church Tutor and Teaching Fellow” at Cranmer Hall theological college, an historically Anglican seminary housed within St John’s College at Durham University. The job will be part-time as the application process begins for a full-time work visa in the UK, a process that can take several weeks.

The creation of this post signifies Cranmer Hall’s new initiative in offering theological education and ministerial training to non-Anglican churches here in the North East of England. In this “Free Church” tradition, aspiring ministers here in a spiritually impoverished region of the UK often go to “the South” (of England) for their seminary education. As “Tutor” (a lecturer with pastoral responsibilities over a handful of assigned students), I will be working alongside other faculty and staff at Cranmer Hall (particularly with the Wesley Study Centre) to teach theology and biblical studies both at St Johns and hopefully out and about within partner churches. As “Teaching Fellow,” I will be available on behalf of Cranmer Hall as a preacher and teacher for area churches with the hopes of building lasting partnerships for addressing ministerial development needs.

A number of details remain to be sorted (the nature of my work as chaplain at St Mary’s, our housing situation, and the imminent event of my viva, et. al.). But for now, I report that the Byers family is very excited.

And so honored.

[If you are in the Free Church tradition here in the North East of England, and interested in theological education, give me shout!]

 

The PhD: Nearing Completion

Dear readers…

My blog writing has dwindled from irregular posts to blankness. I am in the final throes of writing my PhD thesis, so my energies are getting channeled to the end of submitting 100,000 of what I hope is solid work. My sporadic use of social media has mostly been tabled (and to be honest, that has been rather nice).

For those of you interested (and don’t feel bad if you are not), here is the thesis title:

“Johannine Theosis: The Fourth Gospel’s Narrative Ecclesiology of Participation and Deification”

I will explain more eventually. For now, I am pleased to report that I just finished the introductory chapter. After I finish combing through the 100,000 words, revising here and there, I will submit a draft to my supervisor (within a few days). After taking his final suggestions into account, I will then print this massive Word doc, bind it, and mail it to the yet to be confirmed examiners. A “viva” (oral defense) awaits later in the summer.

Regular writing here at Hopeful Realism will resume eventually. But probably after this exciting and grueling season comes to an end.

Thanks to those of you who have kept checking in!

~Andy

An Eastertide Reading from ‘TheoMedia’

The themes of Resurrection and New Creation are central to the ideas behind both TheoMedia and Faith Without Illusions. I found myself grappling with language sufficient for expressing the unimaginable—that the finality of death was checked by the emptying of a sealed tomb. And, of course, I fell quite short in finding such sufficient language. But may favorite sections of both books are probably those lines and paragraphs about Life’s mutiny against Death that we celebrate now at Eastertide. So I will be offering a few readings from the books over the next few weeks. This one is from the chapter on Resurrection and Ascension in TheoMedia…

There is no media silence like the silence of death. Nothing is quieter. No communicative breach is more definitive. Death is the ultimate act of relational closure… No relational distance is wider than that which is symbolized by a dirt-filled grave.

Or a sealed up tomb.

And that is precisely why no sound is more disruptive in a sin-plagued cosmos than the voice of a man once dead. No sound is more volatile in a death-governed world than the sound of man recently buried and now speaking. No sound is more eucatastrophic than the living speech of a death-silenced loved one…

Then I discuss baptism as a “focal media practice”[1] for the church:

Though a ritual practice, the act of baptism is also a media form, a highly visual and public depiction of our participation not only in Jesus’s death, but also in his resurrected life.

Like the Eucharist, there is a rich, multimedia quality to baptism. Consider the sound of water displaced and dripping (or perhaps pouring, depending on the mode of baptism practiced). Think of the sound of liturgical confession and ministerial pronouncement, the touch of soaked robes and wet floors, the sight of a saint dripping wet with the watery glory of a life yanked out of a spiritual grave. All of these elements convey together that Christ has penetrated that ultimate boundary wall of death itself and pulled us through the rent veil into the realm of life.

Though we live in a much lamented world of “media-saturation,” we should take note that the divine media of Easter and new creation are also out there. The difficulty is developing ears to hear and eyes to see…

[1] This phrase is an adaptation of “focal practice,” a phrase used by philosopher Albert Borgmann and recently discussed in Arthur Boers’ Living into Focus.

FAM Scout Scar copy

What my 20-year old self would think of me at 40

[Thanks to those of you who have kept checking at the blog in spite of my hiatus in writing. I have been grappling in grim earnest to finish off the monstrous beast of my PhD thesis (and yeah, Beowulf has been in the pleasure-reading, as the foregoing clauses betray).]

This will be a rather personal post.

I turn 40 over the weekend. It feels like a milestone of sorts, one worthy of some degree of reflection (at the risk of self-absorption).

I used to pray that I would not “sell out” or slink into worldly compromise when I got older. So I have been wondering what the 20-year old Andy would think about the 40-year old Andy… about the values I now hold, the vocational goals, the accomplishments or lack thereof. Would that younger version of me (“20A” we will call him)—a passionate and restless soul freshly committed to serving Jesus to the death and to the uttermost reaches of the earth—would he approve of the contemporary Andy (henceforth “40A”)? Would he find his prayers against the lukewarm-ness of adulthood had been answered in the unfolding of two decades? And since I had a major change of heart after becoming more serious about my faith at 19, I will throw in some thoughts from the 18 year old Andy (“18A”)….

I think 20A would be absolutely flabbergasted to find that 40A is still a student. How could this be? 20A chose “Forestry” as a field of study to avoid the “liberal” religious studies department at UGA, and eked by academically just enough to get into seminary a couple of years later. And now 40A is 85,000 words into a doctoral thesis on biblical theology. 20A certainly evidenced some degree of intellectual promise, but university academics were a laborious distraction from the glorious “out-there,” the land of greener grass beyond the quad, a realm full of grand and epic adventures among perishing souls in need of rescue. 20A would be positively shocked to find his older self slogging through a third postgraduate degree.

What would 18A think? He would be disappointed that I have not already won a gubernatorial race in my home state of Georgia, and entirely miffed that financial means would be squandered on degrees that yield little in terms of financial means.

I think 20A would be pleased that 40A has written a couple of books. He would be quite dismayed, however, over 40A’s (materialistic?) struggle with their poor sales performance, even though 18A would be livid that one would invest so much time and energy (and I mean so much time and energy) in profitless enterprises like writing on theology and culture.

20A would be excited to discover that 40A has a passport jammed full of stamps and currently lives overseas. He would be puzzled, however, that the overseas location is an industrialized Western nation rather than a dark, jungly place of daily dangers.

20A would also be troubled by the fact that 40A has yet to reach an unreached people group and bring them to faith. He would have a tough litany of questions to pose to 40A: how could you be studying when so many people are starving and without the Gospel, or in need of medical help, or in need of rescue from oppression?

On that note, 20A would be pleased to learn that two decades later he would be struggling through multiple languages. He would, however, rub his eyes in consternation over news that said languages are biblical Greek, ancient Hebrew, and academic German. Why not the tonal clicks and gutturals of a stone age tribe awaiting the Gospel?

In sum, 20A would be very pleased indeed to know that 38A daringly moved his wife and kids to another country “by faith,” leaving behind a nice big house, a respectable job, and beloved members of his wider family. He would delight that a hefty percentage of material goods were jettisoned for that costly jaunt overseas. He would just be alarmed that all of this sacrifice—though expended in the name of following Christ—involves the pursuit of a ministerial vocation with such an academic bent.

18A would find both 20A and 40A as alien and quite unfamiliar and would possibly suffer embarrassment over being associated with either of them.

I have a lot to learn from the 20-year old version of myself. That guy had an edge about him, a streak of rebellion against “the way the world works.” One of the benefits of working with university students in ministry is that they do not know about these worldly workings and can thereby hear with peculiar clarity the countercultural edginess of the Gospel. I do not wish to lose sight of the divine kingdom that turns the world upside down.

But in spite of all the concerns 20A would wish to raise with 40A, he would be quite pleasantly shocked beyond all expectation and hope that 40A was married to Miranda Waters, a girl who had caught his 20 year old eyes, and that they had brought into this world the four children whom 40A regularly fails but loves so dearly. Spending one moment with the five people now affixed to 40A, dogging his steps and adorning his life, 20A would probably collapse to his knees. The youngster would not know what to do with the PhD decision, the life in England, the academic pursuits… but he would certainly have some sense, I hope, that however a stranger 40A seemed to be, something beautiful and wondrous was underway in his life.

Something grand. And epic.

theo

Speaking on TheoMedia: Is the Bible Media Savvy?

I got to spend my Saturday at St John’s College at Durham University for a preaching conference sponsored by Cranmer Hall and Fresh Expressions. The theme was “Preaching in the 21st Century.” We were asking questions about the nature of the ancient communicative act of the sermon, wondering about its relevance in our current contexts and pondering how we might ply this craft with theological depth and cultural sensitivity.

As one of the speakers, I was asked to share about TheoMedia. It is always such an honor to talk about material I have written in hopes of serving the church. Below is a YouTube link to my talk, should there be any interest. It provides a good overview of the book. Here is a sampling of how TheoMedia addresses the idea of preaching:

“Our media exposure today is intense. Many of us are enclosed within a wall of sound bites, images, films, video games, and television shows. We are often too occupied with our communications gadgets to recognize that our senses are overloaded with messages and values sourced solely within our collective selves.

So we need an external media source to crack the soundscape and penetrate our field of vision. We need TheoMedia, the revelatory and communicative means of the One who is the wisest and best. No other voice is more precious to hear. No sight is more enthralling than a glimpse of his beauty. In the visual field of glowing signage, in our screen-dominated panorama, in the ubiquitous pastiche of glossy ads, our eyes need to catch some glance of the holy. Into the cacophonous din of our age, into the droning buzz of white noise, into the clamor of ringtones and beeps, we need the sonic boom or the gentle whisper of a word from the Lord.” TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 225–26.

Here is the video link:

TheoMedia: Is the Bible Media Savvy?

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Review of ‘TheoMedia’ at Christianity Today (And Notes on Reviewing Books)

As a writer, there is little else more rewarding—or unnerving!—than realizing that someone has given your work close attention. I am just so thrilled that Christianity Today has been willing to give some space to discussing my book TheoMedia; and I am so thankful to Jeff Haanen for his careful review.

Some Notes on Reviewing Books
It is a funny thing, reviewing someone’s book. On the same day Haanen’s review of TheoMedia was published at CT, my own review was published of Craig Detweiler’s iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives. Having just written on media technology, I understand how painstaking the writing process can be. You hope reviewers will be gracious.

But you certainly hope they will be honest as well.

The professional book review is when one’s work gets tested with fire (to draw on Paul’s metaphor of ministry as construction work in 1 Cor 3:10–15). If the labor of writing was shoddy and the final product unstable, then it is actually the job of the reviewer to expose the weak and irresponsible workmanship. This enterprise of reviewing books should not be understood as the snarky privilege of elitist critics but as the critical task of the church’s thinkers. There is a lot of shoddy workmanship built on false premises. Just as the Christian prophets were to evaluate the public messages of fellow prophets in the Corinthian worship service, so fellow thinkers need to prod and tap on these public offerings made in the form of books. There is too much to read already. Reviewers help us sift. They help us separate the wheat from the chaff—not only by helping us identify which books are good or bad, but also by helping us sift through the wheat and chaff within individual books.

The Christian book review is therefore an expression of the ancient disciplines of discernment.

I am pleased that TheoMedia passed muster at CT, and hopeful that it will be of service to the church as we negotiate digital culture as the people of God.

(And when you find some of the chaff, let me know!).