Saturday, August 28, 2010

Something Better

I’m teaching Hebrews again this term. Haven’t taught Hebrews in a while, and I’m having fun getting back into it. Had forgotten how elegant the writer’s Greek is. It’s not just that he uses hapax legomena (literally, “once spoken,” words that occur nowhere else in the New Testament), but it’s also his beautiful way of forming his syntax. He just puts words together elegantly. He uses inclusio (ending a thought where he began it); chiasmus (ordering thoughts in an “X” pattern); asyndeton (combining words or ideas one after the other without benefit of connecting conjunctions); and anaphora (literally, “born up,” referring to the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive clauses), just to mention a few.

Moreover, Hebrews presents what is, without a doubt, the most thorough-going homiletical commentary (called midrash in Jewish, and Jewish-Christian, thought) of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) anywhere in the Bible. He is thoroughly at home in the Old Testament scriptures, and he expects his audience to be as well (which is no small part of the difficulty contemporary audiences have in understanding Hebrews!).

But as impressive as his Greek is and his knowledge and use of the Old Testament scriptures, that’s not what strikes me about Hebrews. Rather, it’s his pastoral theology. To be sure, Hebrews employs theological models and metaphors not frequently found in the New Testament: Christ as High Priest; the Christian life as journey, athletic contest, and pilgrimage; Christ as Pioneer; Christ as Yom Kippur sacrifice, again to name a few. But all of this high-flown language and complex theology is pressed into the service of a single pastoral concern: There ought to be a difference between “church” and “culture.” The refrain throughout Hebrews is “something better” (kreitton ti). Though we don’t know for certain what all the issues were among the believers to whom Hebrews was written, this much we know: They were experiencing hostility, alienation, ostracism, and even outright persecution from the dominant culture (the paganism of the Roman Empire) simply because they were Christians. Apparently, the price for being Christian in the culture had become so great that some were no longer willing to pay it. They longed for the good ole days when they were part of Judaism, enjoying the protection of the Roman Empire. Some, apparently, were contemplating a return to Judaism, abandoning Christianity altogether. Being Christian had made them “outsiders” and “strangers” and “foreigners on the earth,” and they didn’t like it (see Hebrews 11:13).

This is a consistent theme, not only in Hebrews, but in several New Testament documents from the same period (Ephesians and 1 Peter to mention two). It seems that once Christianity had sufficiently distinguished itself from the parent religion (Judaism), the Roman Empire, correctly perceiving the new religion as a threat to the culture, started to come down on the young movement in both subtle and overt ways. Many Christians, uncomfortable with this “resident alien” status, adopted the old adage, “In order to get along, just go along.” They blended in, fit in, accommodated, adapted, assimilated…so much so that for some Christian communities, one couldn’t really tell where “culture” stopped and “church” started. And for the writer of Hebrews it raised a question: Do “church” and “culture” really refer to the same people, just in different settings? (Fred Craddock commenting on Hebrews 11).

It was a good question. Still is. Cultural assimilation is always the challenge for the church when it tries to hold in tension being “in the world” but not “of the world.” Moreover, the church has always chafed at being a “minority movement.” Everybody likes to be popular. To be sure, we couch it in the language of evangelism (“We’re just doing whatever it takes to win people for Christ”), but the real motivation for cultural assimilation, one suspects, is survival – numerical, political, economic, cultural. And so the church settles in and settles down and snuggles up to the popular culture convinced that the only way to make it in “this world” is to look just like the world. (Elsewhere I've called this "consumer church." See my blog The Purpose-Driven Church) We assimilate, accommodate, acculturate, emulate. “You got day care; we got day care. You got Starbucks; we got Starbucks. You got a kickin’ band; we got a kickin’ band.” We’re afraid that if we ask too much, people will stop coming…and giving. Besides, there’s always a better “show” down the street if we demand too much. “Come to our church; we’ll ask nothing, demand nothing, change nothing, require nothing. Matter of fact, we look and feel just like the world out there! Come on in; you’ll feel right at home.”

Do “church” and “culture” really refer to the same people, just in different settings? And if so, what’s the point of going to church anyway? If the church is just Starbucks with a thin veneer of Christianity smeared over, why not just go to Starbucks? They’re open longer hours and take American Express.

And yet, we still go to church. We still suffer through all those shallow, silly, sophomoric Sundays hoping that maybe today might be the day when “church” emerges from “culture” and reminds us of the difference it makes to be Christian in the world. Some of us, it seems, still want something more... “something better.”


Tim Marsh said...

Dear Dr. Stacy,

I had a seminar on Hebrews at Duke under Richard Hays and his doctoral student, David Moffitt, whose dissertation is on Hebrews. It is a rich, yet, neglected New Testament work. I have taught Hebrews and preached a series of sermons from the book and cannot get enough of devotional reading from it. I am glad you will be teaching an entire course on the book and I know that it will force your students to think.

I hope that you would do some posts on "falling away" and "shrinking back" regardless of what position you might take on the issue.

As for the church vis-a-vis its cultural context, Hebrews challenges American views of the church's accomadation to culture to reach the culture, whether it is traditional, contemporary, emergent or whatever. Moreover, it challenges our political assumptions and our political sentiments.

Looking forward to hearing how your class goes.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Tim. I agree with your long as "reaching the culture" isn't code for "assimilating to the culture." The first word, the very first word, of the Gospel is: "Your culture, as it is, is bankrupt!" (Five minutes with the morning news should be sufficient to deter any doubters) Once we get that straight, then we can move on to introduce and enculturate people to a wholly new, and counter-cultural, movement Jesus called "the Kingdom of God."

Jeff Genson said...

Evening Dr. Stacey,

Hope you are well. Thank you for this site. I have been following it for some time now and am blessed by your comments and observations.

In preaching from the book of Hebrews, many times I have been asked to comments on Hebrews 6:6. Could you please comment on what you feel the writer is trying to express about "enlightenment" and "falling away".

Jeffrey Genson

R. Wayne Stacy said...

Hi Jeff. Good to hear from you. Thanks for your kind remarks.

I'm afraid you'll have to take the course to get that! ;-)