Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Inspired, with a Medium-sized "i"

On and off for the past several months, I've been slogging through deeply enjoying N. T. Wright's 2013 book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  On page 1370 (just 150 pages to go!), I came across this:

"To approach the frontier between the human and the divine is also to approach the borders of language. The problem emerges, for instance, when [Paul] talks about 'the divine spirit bearing witness with our spirit' [Rom. 8:16], and the problem is only slightly alleviated when he talks instead about the divine spirit residing in a person's 'heart'. The questions English-language exegetes [interpreters] sometimes ask, as to whether 'spirit' should have a capital letter or not, indicating the divine spirit rather than the human one, shows well enough that there is fluidity of thought at this point."

This struck me particularly because of two recent items; bear with me, since they take a moment to join together.  Item One: a conversation I recently shared with a few colleagues, concerning whether or not God still calls people to be apostles today.  Leaving aside the more prickly questions of whether (and how) spiritual gifts like prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues still function today, we talked about what it was that made Jesus' original apostles, well, apostles: they were commissioned as such, and sent as such; they were first among Jesus' companions and witnesses; empowered by Jesus' commissioning, and later more directly by the Holy Spirit, they did some pretty amazing stuff ("that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons," Mark 3:14-15). But then of course there's somebody like Paul, who gets to define himself as apostle to the Gentiles/nations, talks about himself as the least (and most undeserving) of the apostles, yet also tries to dictate what kind of spheres of authority he and other apostles have.  (And, Paul might well add, he also added letter-writing to the apostolic job description!)  All of that is to say that if we were to imagine an "apostolic" calling today, there might be considerable variations in what that would look like between those called.  To take some of the loaded-ness out of that term, apostolic, maybe we should place it within the current conversation of the mission of God and his people: where those original, capital-A Apostles were commissioned in some sense directly by Jesus himself, today a lowercase-a apostle could be one who is sent on a mission, not unlike a missionary, as part of the larger mission that God has given his people, the mission that reflects and expresses God's own mission to this beautiful but broken world.  For the individual, that's a powerful incentive to do the things one is called to do, to live out a commission most faithfully (in some cases probably including, but not limited to, blogging more consistently).

Item two: a nearby Christian TV station has been using the Twitter hashtag "#inspiring" to promote discussion of its programming -- including its reruns of, say, Gilmore Girls and The West Wing.  I happily admit that there are plenty of "inspiring" moments in these and other shows, and West Wing more than most.  But it's almost always lowercase-i inspiring.  Not that anyone can decide firmly where the break should be between capital and lowercase inspiration, much as Wright says about the use of Spirit and spirit above.  The most stirring, Capra-esque moment of compassionate politics in Jed Bartlet's White House is still a far cry from the literal in-spiration of the first Pentecost; but who's to say that the Spirit cannot or would not move in and through that former moment, at which point inspiration becomes, arguably, Inspiration

So: what do you think?  What do you make of Wright's point about the limits of human language here, or my reflection on them?  How are we supposed to work out these questions of big and little A's and I's (without getting too far into Dr. Seuss's ABCs!) that can make such a big difference in our spiritual formation and mission?  Is there a happy medium-sized expression between the two extremes -- and if so, what does it look like?


  1. Interesting stuff to consider here. As Chandra probably told you, Allen and I are in the midst of discerning whether we'd like to worship under the auspices of the Catholic church (and have spent since January 2013 doing research and wrestling with it). Of course, Catholics tout that they (and the Orthodox) truly have maintained apostolic succession, which is something I feel that most Evangelical Christians today don't know/care about. I didn't. I did grow up in a Presbyterian church which recited the Nicene creed fairly regularly, so I grew up saying that I believed in one holy and apostolic church, but I didn't know what that meant.
    And I don't think it is fair to say (nor does the Catholic church declare) that a church not being Apostolic (big A, with priests and leadership tracing authority back to the Twelve and especially Peter) means that a church is not on mission, Spirit-filled, or ardently pursuing Christ. So, I'm inclined to agree that there are perhaps big A apostolic as well as little a apostolic. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we are marked with a seal as belonging to God. Does that also put a call on our lives, necessarily? And was Jesus' Great Commission for the Twelve only? I'll have to find out the Catholic perspective on that.
    I also agree about inspiration/Inspiration. God gets to use everything. I remember hearing a testimony about a person who received Christ at a Satanic death metal concert (I want to say Ozzy Osbourne but I'm not sure). There had been a few folks outside the concert with signs saying that Jesus saves, and although the man went in scoffing at them, during the concert he thought, "You know, if hell is real, I don't think I'd really like it; but I probably deserve it." And he left the concert then and there and committed himself to Christ. So, Inspiration strikes even in Satan's turf. It has to, I suppose, since the whole world is currently Satan's turf. How irksome for him that the Kingdom keeps breaking through in all the places he'd counted on owning.
    That makes me think about the very different ways to view the world. The view I grew up in (which I'll call the alarmist Dr. Dobson type view) is that the world belongs to God but Satan keeps destroying parts of it, and if we don't "do something about it" it's all going under. The view I soaked up during my 20s was that the world may be broken and under Satan's thumb, but God's kingdom is breaking through (a la Aslan breaking the spell of interminable winter in Narnia). I'm inclined to view the second as the more correct viewpoint, or at least the less frantic of the two. Are we trying to rout Satan from besieging us, or are Jesus the one besieging Satan and liberating us, his captives?

    1. Thanks, Jenny! I appreciate your thoughts. No, I hadn't realized that you and Allen were considering Catholicism; that explains, perhaps, some of the attraction to the Conversion Diary blog that you and Chandra follow (and have borrowed writing techniques from, if memory serves). Yes, certainly apostolic succession -- which has often made the big-A, little-a apostolic discussion just as prickly as the other spiritual giftings/commissions I mentioned -- deserves some consideration here. The question of which of Jesus' teachings apply to whom is an ancient and frequent one, including the idea that portions of the sermon on the mount were perhaps to be thought of as "counsels of perfection," i.e,, all but unattainable by most folks. It's easy to take a route like that toward diluting the missional necessity of what that sermon and the rest of Jesus' teachings commend, but on the other hand, we need to give ourselves and others grace when it comes to "be perfect [or "holy," if you prefer Luke's version] as your heavenly Father is perfect." But I digress; I'm happy to have provided you with another angle for personal research!

      I will largely leave your 2nd and 3rd paragraphs alone, other than to largely agree with what you've said. Certainly I resonate with your problems with the "alarmist"/"frantic" viewpoint you noted, especially when it affects our beliefs and practices in eschatology and ethics. Recently I've not only been reading Wright's book, but watching a series of interviews with the author of a new book on prophecy and the series of "blood moons" appearing in 2014-15. Now, with respect, this author is actually responding to even more alarmist opinions, recommending moderation when it comes to interpreting the "signs of the times." Yet he seems so certain in his view of what's going to happen in the "end times" that he doesn't appear to leave any room for gracious counter-argument. To those who see the world as a place so fallen that it needs to be replaced at the eschaton, I often want to ask, aren't we underestimating God's power, his love for the world (not just the people) he made, his ability to redeem and right what has gone wrong, when we take such a view? Isn't it possible that Paul had good reasons for phrasing Jesus' arrival to liberate us in a way that clearly referenced the manner in which a Caesar would come to the rescue of an imperial colony -- not to rescue-and-remove, but to put things to rights right there and then? Isn't that a richer and more satisfying story (as Andy Crouch would say, a story that does justice to Genesis 1 and 2, rather than starting with the Fall in Gen 3) than a gospel that relieves us of our responsibility to care for this creation by consuming and replacing it?

      ...Hmmm, I didn't do a very good job of leaving that last point alone! :) But thanks again for your comments.

    2. In church today the gospel reading was Matthew 24 where Jesus says that no one but the Father knows the time, and that we are called to be ready. If Jesus Himself was not privy to that just seems a bit of a stretch to be so sure. Harold Camping and others come to mind, and it saddens me to know that some of his disciples not only lost faith in him but in Christianity itself as a result of his being wrong about the end of the world. But the call is to be ready, ready, ready and to make use of the time given us. I think we can fulfill that call whether or not we are "reading the signs of the times. " (so in short, I'm agreeing!)