Category Archives: Education

preserve this our city

"Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel", Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel”,
Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Matthew 1:18-25 (Isaiah 7)
For Sunday, December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

I was fascinated to learn this week about Duccio’s “Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial” (pictured above).  It’s a story that spans from the National Gallery of Art in present day Washington, D.C. all the way back to 14th century Tuscany, Italy, and the city state of Siena.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (say that three times fast) was a prominent Sienese artist with a reputation that extended as far as Paris.  His Siena studio received a commission from the government of Siena to create a magnificent altarpiece called the Maesta, that would serve as a crown jewel of the already famous and beautiful Cathedral of Siena.  The idea was to raise the profile of Siena, and it’s allegiance with the Roman Emperor, as against that of it’s archival Florence, which was allied with the Pope (1).

The Maesta (“The Majesty”) was intended to celebrate the majesty of God as revealed in the coming of Immanuel (Messiah as “God with Us”).   It was a stunningly beautiful free-standing sculpture 7′ high by 13′ wide consisting of many images.  The theme on the front was Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth while the theme on the back was the life of Christ.  The work en toto was the 13th Century equivalent of a modern cinematic blockbuster.  If you had the good fortune of walking into the glorious Cathedral of Siena, and then walking up to the alter to take communion in front of this even more glorious Maesta, it would be an experience of a lifetime.

Across the front of the base of the Maesta was a predalla, a horizontal band of narrative scenes.  Front and center on the predella was “The Nativity’.  It’s only 18″ tall and 34” wide, but it was the invitation to enter into the majesty of the larger work.  When you approached the Maesta this is where your eyes would go first.  Then you would be drawn into the majesty of the entire narrative until finally eyes moved above Mary’s own ascension into heaven and you were forced to contemplate your own mortality in light of eternity.  Mind altering, to be sure.

Duccio flanks the nativity scene itself with the Prophet Isaiah on the left and the Prophet Ezekiel on the right.  Each is holding a scroll.  On Isaiah’s scroll is written ‘ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET & PARIET FILIU & VOCABITUR NOMEN EIUS EMANUEL’, Latin for “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14).   Right… , that certainly makes good sense.

On Ezekiel’s scroll, however, is inscribed  ‘VIDI PORTA I DOMO DOM CLAUSA VIR NO TRSIBIT P[ER] EA DOMIN SOLUS ITRAT ET IT P[ER] EA[M]’, for “I saw a door in the house of the Lord which was closed and no man went through it. The Lord only enters and goes through it” (Ezekial 44:2).   Wow, not the Ezekiel verse I expected.   Yet this was always the citation from Ezekiel that resonated with the Sienese, because for them, “the door” was Mary, and if it wasn’t for her, Immanuel could never have come into the world (2).

The Maesta was installed in the cathedral of Siena on June 9, 1311.  Here is how one participant described the event:

And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.

Wow!  After reading that I need to see “The Nativity” in the National Gallery of Art in D.C.  And I need to see the parts of the Maesta that remain in Siena as well as the Cathedral itself.  What an incredible story God weaves over time and through nations.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to organize some Christian Worldview culture vulture trips for amazed people  such as us?

I love the last part of the description above.  “The poor received many alms, and we prayed to our patron Saint that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor, or enemy.”  My prayer today for the poor among us, for you and me, for our families, for our churches, for our cities, for our countries, and for our world is that God might do likewise for us.

Merry Christmas.

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what’s your story? postmodernism

Glenn Sunshine’s Portals, Chapter 3

‘Postmodernism’ literally means “after” “what is modern”.   One feature of Modernism  was a tremendous confidence in the power of human reason.  Postmodernism, at least partially in reaction to horrific World Wars and personalities such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, suggests this confidence was both misplaced and ill-founded.  As Sunshine writes, “Postmodernism is built on the premises that absolute truth does not exist, that objectivity is impossible, and that everything we think of as true is a product of culture.”

Several key implications, says Sunshine, then follow:

  • Truth is personal:  something can be true for me while simultaneously being untrue for you.
  • Truth is political:  social power defines reality so those with the power determine reality (e.g. White House press conferences)
  • Language is key:  control language and you can create a better world (hence speech codes).

The story of postmodernism is that we came from the process of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations (just as in the secular naturalist story).  What went wrong with the world is that institutions accumulated the power to oppress.  The solution is “to work toward a worldy utopia based on unrestricted personal freedom enforced by government regulation”.  It’s essentially Occupy Wall Street writ large.  The purpose of life “is to create a world where each individual is free to live out her or his own self-defined identity, free of judgment from others, with all essential needs supplied by society.”  In my mind, the re-election of President Obama fits this narrative strikingly well.

Here are some questions that may call the viability of postmodernism into question.  First, how can truth be solely personal?  If my truth is to drive on the right side of the road, and yours is to drive on the left, we are going to collide head on, and we both know it.  Second, how can truth be essentially political?  When the White House Press Secretary gets challenged, and reiterates or obfuscates, do you really find that convincing or satisfying?  Third, if controlling language was really our key to salvation, wouldn’t salvation have long ago been achieved in places like the Soviet Union, where saying one wrong word could land you in the Gulag?

Where have you encountered postmodernism in your own life?

The Word in the World

Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, Chapter 3

Newbigin argues that the Enlightenment on the one hand brought new light to the Bible through scientific study while on the other hand desacralizing it.  This is using ‘science’ in the broad sense of meaning “objective and fact-based” study.  He then suggests four different responses taken by different groups within the Christian community:

1)  Fundamentalists suggested that where science contradicts the Scriptures it must be wrong (e.g. Warfield).
2)  Liberals suggested preserving essential religious meaning (e.g. Schleiermacher).
3)  Others suggested using biblical theology to “distill” essential principles (e.g. William Temple).
4)  Others suggested focusing on the Bible as a record of salvation history (Bultmann).

Newbigin finds all of these approaches lacking in that they fail to challenge the fact/value (or public/private) dichotomy in which they operate.  Newbigin’s alternative is to focus on the Bible as a record of a believing community that can thereby be rendered authentic even if errant.

On the one hand this is helpful in that it points to an apriori ontological commitment that Christians make when accepting the Bible’s authority.  We evangelicals speak of the need for the illumination of the Holy Spirit to provide understanding.  On the other hand, I think Newbigin’s approach falls into the same fact/value chasm that he is trying to avoid.  He appears to be arguing that the Bible has authority within the values of the Christian community while the objective facts still render it errant within the broader public sphere.

I don’t like options “1” through “4” above either but I think a better approach is to maintain that the Bible can challenge the public/private dichotomy itself through a unified view of truth that has it’s foundation in Jesus Christ himself.  There is no need or reason to surrender the Bible’s public claims to the supposed greater authority of science, because science itself would be meaningless without a unifying reality of truth to undergird it’s efforts at natural discovery.

A variation of option “1” is what I prefer.  Where Scripture and science appear to contradict two possibilities must be considered: our understanding of one or the other must be incomplete and the tension must be worked through over time.   Granted, there is an a priori commitment prerequisite to accepting the authority of Scripture, but it is a reasoned a priori versus one of blind faith.  It is Augustine’s “I believe in order to understand.”

Reader’s corner:
What has been your experience in reading the Bible for yourself?  Do you find it speaking with authority to your own life whether public or private?  Why or why not?

p.s.  Lesslie Newbigin’s name seems notoriously hard to spell because it seems like it should have one ‘s’ in Lesslie and two ‘g’s in Newbigin vs. the other way around.

by what authority?


Lt. Oliver North testifies regarding Iran-Contra (July 9, 1987).



Matthew 21:23-27

For Sunday, September 25th, 2011
Proper 21

“By what authority are you doing this”  This is the question that the power brokers of Jesus’ day put to him.  These power brokers were “the chief priests” and “the elders of the people“.  The “chief priests” were senior members of the priestly aristocracy that held the keys to Jewish power.  A contemporary U.S. equivalent might be the U.S. Senate.  The “elders of the people” were key civic leaders in the community who worked alongside the chief priests.  A U.S. equivalent might be the U.S. House of Representatives.

There is a reason that “the chief priests” and the “elders of the people” are mentioned here rather than than “The Pharisees and the Sadducees” as are often found elsewhere.  While “Pharisees” and “Saducees” were politically-oriented designations (like “Republican” and “Democrat”), “chief priests” and “elders of the people” were structurally-oriented designations (like “Senate” and “House of Representatives”).  The challenge being made here was not on the basics of politics: it was on the basis of social power (1).

By come into Jerusalem the way he did, very publicly, drawing on the Jewish prophetic imagery by riding on a colt and donkey,  with the resulting groundswell of Jewish popular support, Jesus was shaking the existing social order to its foundation.  The power brokers in Jerusalem were worried.  They responded by forming the equivalent of a “Special Congressional Committee on Social Order (SCCSO) (a.k.a. ” The Committee”) and then subpoenaed Jesus to appear.  If this happened today Jesus’ testimony would have been carried live on all the major television news outlets much as Lt. Oliver North’s testimony was carried during the Iran-Contra scandal.

In his testimony Jesus apologized for causing offense, retreated to his holy huddle, and was never heard from again.  Okay . . .  that’s not accurate.  What he did instead was argue that he lived in a Christian country and that everyone should return to the Bible.  Okay . . . that’s not accurate either.  What did he actually do?  He answered The Committee’s question with a question.  His question was grounded in something undeniable from the Committee’s own experience but for which they had no explanation: “John’s Baptism, where did it come from? . . .”  The Committee was well aware that something remarkable was happening in the desert.  There was a populist figure named John the Baptist who was having a remarkable impact in saving lives and changing lives through a ministry of baptism.

This was… awkward for the Committee.  If they answered, “From God himself,” then Jesus would say, “Then why aren’t you listening?”  If they answered, “From men who only think they are hearing from God,” they would drive a wedge between themselves and a very popular movement.  So they took door number 3: “We don’t know.”  This made clear that they weren’t ready to engage Jesus honestly and transparently so there was nothing further for him to say.  He refused to answer further questions.

Let’s then conclude by drawing out two implications.  First, for those of us who stand with Jesus, we must be willing when called upon to speak truth to power in the form of countering questions.  If for example, the ACLU asks, “By what authority are you bringing religious considerations into public schools?” we might answer, “By what authority are you excluding them?”  We might press further with this: “If you really believe in diversity then why would you move to exclude religious considerations from the mix?”

Second, in our advocacy for the grace and peace brought into the world by the good news of Jesus, let us engage skeptics on the ground of shared experience.  Let us not quote Scripture to them, ignore them, or demagogue them.  Let us rather leverage our shared experience with them.  For example, what really happened in the Wall Street meltdown?  Have we not all suffered financially as a result.  Was it not a total failure of ethics?  Was it not immoral? (2)  And if so, what ought to be done about it? (3)

1)  Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Matt. 21, v. 23.  Also with appreciation for insights on “Jesus in Context” by Dr. Michael Crow in “Multiplying J-Mentors”, Missiology, January 2008.
2)  Read Michael Lewis, “The Big Short“. 
3)  For a fascinating conversation on this particular question please see www.doingtherightthingevent.com.

Christian plausibility

Jesus, “Pantocrator”, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey


2 Peter 1:16-21
For Sunday, March 6, 2011
Transfiguration Sunday


Why believe Christianity is true? Isn’t it just one of the great faiths along others such as Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism? (What’s strange about this question is that we don’t list Secularism as a great faith alongside these others. We’re so steeped in it that we can no longer even recognize it for what it is).

The Apostle Peter gave his answer without equivocation: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (v. 16). The event to which Peter refers is the Transfiguration of Jesus, which is recorded for us in another of this week’s readings, Matt. 17:1-9.

Matthew tells us that at one point Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain. There Jesus was transfigured. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (Matt. 17:2-3). When referring back to this event, Peter is saying very plainly, “Look, the reason I believe is because I saw Jesus transfigured before my own eyes.”

Where does that leave me? Do I need to see Jesus transfigured to believe? No, because I believe that what I’m reading here in 2nd Peter is a factual account. I believe that Jesus really did walk the earth, that he really was resurrected from the dead, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father. There are other reasons I believe too, but for me, this is the anchor of my faith.

A great conversation starter is this: “What is your philosophy of life?” Give them time to answer. Listen. Let them identify it and articulate it as best they can. (It’s not the easiest question in the world to answer). Then ask them, “On what basis do you believe this?”


The irony is that if Christianity really is true, rather than a cleverly invented story, then the other great faiths, including Secularism, can’t be anything but cleverly invented stories.

So whose story to believe? It’s worth pondering, for the answer to this single question will direct the course of our lives.
This Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, marks the climax of the Season of Epiphany. The Son of Man has been revealed. Now as we enter the Season of Lent we begin journeying to an even greater climax: the Son of Man dying on a cross to forgive our sins, conquer death, and give us new life.

The Gospel and Western Culture

“Green, Red, Blue”, Mark Rothko, 1955
Milwaukee Art Museum
Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley

For Sunday, October 24, 2010
Proper 25

The problem for so many of us in the West is that we can’t see the Western forest for the sake of its trees. What a blessing then to find someone who can look at the West from both within and without, and then make suggestions about how the gospel can actually be good news to the West.

A wonderful book on the subject was written in 1986 by missionary and writer Lesslie Newbigin. He entitled it _Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture_.

Newbign argues that one of the defining characteristics of the Post-Enlightenment West is the public/private dichotomy between secular and spiritual life. In short, it’s just not plausible to be spiritual in public. So what are Christians and the church to do? Newbigin’s final chapter offers seven promising suggestions restated here with some re-wording:

1) Grasp the significance of the coming heavenly kingdom
As a Christian community we need to recover the sense that humanity has a divine destiny. This then shapes how we approach things like politics. “The public political act has its real meaning simply as a kind of acted prayer for the coming of God’s reign” (p. 137).

2) Articulate the Christian notion of freedom of conscience
“A true understanding of the gospel itself ought to enable Christians to be firm in their allegiance to Christ . . . (yet also) ready to enter into a genuinely listening dialogue (with those of other convictions). . . This is the foundation on which a true tolerance, not indifference to the truth, can be found.”

3) Encourage the development of a contextualized marketplace theology
“We need to create, above all, possibilities in every congregation for laypeople to share with one another the actual experience of their weekday work and to seek illumination from the gospel for their daily secular duty.”

4) Overcome denominationalism
“Neither a denomination separately nor all the denominations linked together in some kind of federal unity or “reconciled diversity” can be the agents of a missionary confrontation with our culture, for the simple reason that they are themselves the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual surrender to the ideology of our culture” (p. 146).

5) Listen to the voices of Christians from other times and cultures
“The fact that Jesus is much more than . . . our culture-bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him with other eyes” (p. 146).

6) Maintain the courage of Christian conviction in the face of a reigning secular ideology that considers such implausible
“Our modern scientific culture has pursued the ideal of a completely impersonal knowledge of a world of so-called facts that are simply there, and cannot be doubted by rational minds.” The counterpoint is that “any understanding of reality (including secularism) involves a commitment, a venture of faith” (p. 148).

7) Be a community of praise that radiates a supernatural reality.
The church needs to be “a place of joy, of praise, of surprises, and of laughter – a place where there is a foretaste of the endless surprises of heaven.” A praise that is literally “out of this world” is by this very fact able to speak into this secular world (p. 149).

Let us therefore see the Western forest for the sake of the redemption of its Post-Enlightenment trees.

Newbigin ends his fine book with these words:
“The church’s witness among the nations is at heart the overflow of a gift. The boldness and the expectancy (that attend) are the marks of those who have been surprised by joy and know that there are still surprises to come, because God is great” (p. 150).

reconciling the human condition

Claud Lorrain, “Landscape With Adoration of the Golden Calf”
Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, Germany
For Sunday, September 12, 2010
Proper 19

What is the human condition? Are we essentially good, with a tendency to make some bad choices, or fatally flawed to the core of our beings and totally unable to save ourselves?

This week’s readings provide a strong argument for the latter.
Jeremiah 4:22 says,
“My people are fools;
they do not know me,
They are senseless children;
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
they know not how to do good.”
Psalm 14 verses 2-3 concur:
“The Lord looks down from heaven
on the sons of men
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
All have turned aside,
they have together become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
So if we’re rotten to the core, what then? Luke 15 provides the response – repent:
“… There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” To repent means to turn away from the direction one has been moving and to begin moving in the opposite direction. In our case, this means to stop moving away from God and to start moving toward him.
1 Timothy 1:12-17 provides a picture of what this looks like in an individual life. The Apostle Paul describes that while he was once a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man, now the grace of the Lord along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus had been poured out on him (vv. 13-14).
Rotten apples can be redeemed. It starts with recognizing that we are among them, and that only the grace of the gospel can save us. If you have not yet repented, may today be the day you say ‘yes’ to God’s call to turn around. If you have repented, but have lost your focus, may today be the day you understand once again the direction in which you are called to move. If you have repented and are living righteously, may today’s readings be a cause for rejoicing.
The human condition can be reconciled. The key is a word: repent.