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Friday, January 2, 2015


First, I'm back. I have written very little on 1st Corynthians for several months, because my writing capacity has been maxed out on a doctor of ministry thesis that blew way beyond what it is supposed to be. You can learn more about that project in a prior post (which does not perfectly describe either my subject or the project as it turned out, but it comes close), and I am sure that I will talk about it here at some future point(s). Meanwhile, two hundred thousand words later, I am trying to find myself again, and apparently that includes finding this blog.

I have never known how many readers I have had, but periodically I have been humbly gratified to get positive feedback from someone. If I have been useful to regular readers, please accept my sincere apology for the silence, if there's anyone still out there. We'll see how much I put out in 2015.

Enough of that. During my desperate struggle to finish my thesis I put off many things large and small. One of the small ones was deciding what to do with a free six-month subscription to Christianity Today. Now, many people (I assume or at least hope) read CT to get out of it . . . well, whatever good things they get out of it. I don't really know, because historically the main thing that I get out of it is a prodigious catalog of successful American evangelicals whose abiding flaw is that none of them is myself.

I don't suppose—no, I do, I just feel guilty for supposing—that the magazine exists to define a list of important people by making them subjects of articles and interviews, quoted sources, and bylines. To me, however, CT (and a lot of other things) becomes what my beloved friend Ted Kluck calls "ego porn"—perfect artifices that excite covetous lust, fantasies not to be realized in one's own life. One masturbates to it by posting something in the comment feed that everyone will love or by tweeting to one of the important people hoping for a response. Like masturbation, it doesn't "work," and even when it does, there is no substance and no afterglow, only an empty hunger for more.

Not that I know from experience or anything.

I got to thinking about greatness today, specifically about where I would wish to be great if I could. I remembered something about becoming great in the kingdom of heaven, so I decided to check into that again.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:19 that "anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." So if I really want to be great, my ambition must be to do everything the Bible says as Jesus and his apostles frame it for "the Israel of God" and to teach others to do the same. Interesting.

Later in Matthew (11:11-12) Jesus talks about John the Immerser and calls him at least as great as anyone else "born of women"—pretty impressive, since the greatest person in that category is Jesus himself. But then Jesus points out (as I translate it) that John is so great "although the one who is inferior in Heaven's government is greater than he is."

This isn't a remark about John being the best of the Old Covenant, but the least participant in the New Covenant is better than he is, although many have interpreted it this way. Rather, it is a sad observation that as lofty as John is in God's government, people who are of no importance in the coming age appear to be superior to him in today's ranking system. That is why, Jesus goes on, "the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it." People are the kingdom, and those in so-called high places forcibly took away the kingdom when they threw John in prison and led Jesus to the cross and persecute our brothers and sisters around the world today.

Point? Human beings are horrible judges of greatness. This disturbs me about American evangelicalism. (Note that by the modifier "American" I am referring to a sociocultural entity, not the abstract beliefs and values that this group shares in common with other groups.)

The evangelical subculture's proximity to the center of cultural power in my country has fluctuated over the centuries. Evangelicals have never quite dominated (although in the 1840s and '50s they came close), and therefore big shots in the evangelical subculture have rarely been big-time in the wider culture. According to what Jesus says about greatness, that's quite all right.

But, people being people, it comes naturally to us on the periphery of cultural influence to form an alternate, ingrown pecking order centered on basically the same things that the world values—power, reach, comeliness, charisma, and close acquaintance with others who have them—instead of obedience. That's not to say that the people whom we consider important are not obedient—I hope and (want to) assume that they are. It's just that their obedience is not why we consider them important.

The overwhelming ease with which humans do this comes home to me in Jesus' third remark about greatness in Matthew. "At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a child, had him stand among them, and said, 'I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven' " (18:1-4). The phrase "turn around" is actually passive—you are turned around, or as the NASB renders it, "converted." You have to be turned into a little child even to enter the kingdom of heaven, much less to become great.

I automatically think of my youngest child, a four-year-old, when I read this. Don't misunderstand: he is not a moral role model. He can be willful, destructive, and violent. But in one area he is perfect: he is utterly unpretentious. He is totally unaware of who the greatest is and he never thinks about it, and he certainly does not wish to be the greatest himself.

And that is where I am stuck, because I am acutely aware of greatness and have oodles of ambition to be the greatest. Jesus tells me that if I want to slake my thirst for greatness, I must be so altered that I am unconscious of greatness. And then, when greatness is foreign to my psyche, when I don't care or even much notice, then I will become great in the one valuation that matters, that of the kingdom of heaven.

I haven't decided yet whether to get Christianity Today (and I don't want advice about it, by the way). But I know that if I was like a little child it would be an easier decision to make, since it would be neither a trap nor a training. It might just be a great magazine, and I might just be great.