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The rules of our Five Questions interview series are simple: we send authors a long list of questions. Some are serious, some are . . . not so serious. They choose their five favorites and respond.

Michael Gorman

Michael Gorman

Our guest today is Michael J. Gorman, author of several highly-regarded books on Paul. His latest book is Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, the first detailed exegetical treatment of Paul’s letters from the emerging discipline of missional hermeneutics. Gorman holds the Raymond E. Brown Chair in Biblical Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, Maryland

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What led you to write Becoming the Gospel?

I have always believed that Paul had a robust ecclesiology and, of course, a deep personal sense of mission. In addition, I would consider myself part of the “participationist” school of Pauline interpretation. So I had been wondering how these fit together. For the last decade or so I have also been deeply involved in the Forum on Missional Hermeneutics of the Gospel and Our Culture Network. The Network is indebted to the work of the late missiologist Lesslie Newbigin. The Forum, which meets in conjunction with SBL, takes the missio Dei and the church’s part in it as the starting point for biblical interpretation. Since I am first of all a student of Paul, in this context I began thinking through how a missional strategy of interpretation would affect our reading of Paul’s letters. After several years of thinking, researching, and presenting my results in various lectures and articles, I decided it was time to pull those forays into a coherent whole, write some additional essays related to those papers, and put the collection into a larger Pauline theological framework. That framework is “participation” — in Christ, in God, in the mission of God.

Gorman_ecoming the Gospel_wrk02.indd

Becoming the Gospel

How and why did you choose the title for the book?

You can probably credit Paul for the choice of title. For a long time I have noticed how important participation and transformation are to Paul’s theology and spirituality. For him, his colleagues, and his churches, the gospel of the resurrected crucified Messiah has to be embodied, narrated, incarnated. I have often referred to this idea in terms of the church becoming a “living exegesis” of the gospel. For me, one of the most succinct and poignant expressions of this idea is found in 2 Cor. 5:21, which says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin [Christ], so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” There you have it: the gospel, participation, and transformation all in one sentence, in which one very key word is “become.”

As an important aside, I would add that at this very moment, in the city where I teach (Baltimore), some of my current and former students and colleagues — and their churches — are among those becoming the gospel of peace, reconciliation, and justice in a broken city. Perhaps they are the reason for the title.

What makes Becoming the Gospel such a unique contribution?

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first book-length treatment of Paul from a missional perspective. It is also unusual in being quite interdisciplinary: an intersection of biblical studies, hermeneutics, missiology, theology, and practical theology. Perhaps most importantly for Pauline studies and for the life of the church, the book argues — contrary to some highly influential interpreters of Paul — that the apostle really did expect his communities to be engaged in mission. Moreover, the book defines “mission” quite broadly because Paul did. We’re not simply talking about verbal sharing of the gospel, though that is part of mission in Paul’s view.

Whom do you envision reading Becoming the Gospel?

Everyone! First of all, I hope pastors, seminary students, and lay leaders in the churches will read it. As always, I have deliberately written a book that attempts to be challenging but readable. I want to spark conversations and then action in the church. We certainly need both. Secondly, I hope biblical scholars, missiologists, theologians, and others who teach in and influence the various fields of study that come together in this book will read Becoming. It is intended to be a major contribution to these various fields.

Cruciformity

How does Becoming the Gospel tie into your previous work on Paul?

As some EerdWord readers will know, Becoming the Gospel is my third monograph on Paul with Eerdmans. The first was Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, the second Inhabiting the Cruciform God, and the third, of course, Becoming the Gospel. (I also wrote Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters with Eerdmans — second edition now in process.) In the first pages of Becoming I say that these three monographs constitute an accidental trilogy, for each has naturally led to the next, and the three hang together in significant ways. In Cruciformity I focused on Paul’s spirituality of participation — of being in Christ and being conformed to his cross-shaped story, suggesting at the end that “colonies of cruciformity” (i.e., churches) were inherently “missionary.” In Inhabiting I argued that cruciformity was actually theoformity, or what the Christian tradition calls theosis. At the end of that book I hinted that theosis had missional implications but did not develop the idea very much.

In Becoming, I take a new look at several of Paul’s letters from the perspective of participation in Christ, and therefore in the life of God, as being inherently missional. In fact, I suggest that theosis, rather than being anti-mission as some might think, is the proper framework for mission because participating in the life of God means participating in the mission of God. And that means taking on the missional traits of God: faithfulness, love, peaceableness, justice, and so on.

Interestingly, as I revise Apostle of the Crucified Lord I am finding that my now thoroughly missional approach to Paul, which has been developing over the decade or so since the first edition was published, requires the inclusion of some perspectives I had never previously imagined. It’s fun!

Finally, if you had to describe your book in about twenty words, what would those words be?

Paul calls us not only to believe the gospel but also to become the gospel and thereby to advance the gospel.

Learn more about Michael Gorman on his blog, Cross Talk, and click to order Becoming the Gospel.

Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College, Belfast, where he has taught since 1994. His book The Election of Grace: A Riddle without a Resolution? aims to offer a coherent account of the doctrine of election while arguing for a diminished role of system in Christian theology.

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Stephen N. Williams

Another book on election? If this doctrine has caused problems for centuries, the problem is hardly likely to be solved now. Perhaps not, but it is worth asking whether the problem’s persistence is accounted for by some presupposition in the way it has been set up.

The Election of Grace tries to make some fresh suggestions — or to put some old suggestions in a fresh way. I mention here two of the main ones. Firstly, it asks whether we make a mistake in looking for a system. If a thinker has some ideas surrounding the whole question of election — let’s call them A, B and C — it is natural to ask what is the relation of A to B, B to C, A to C, and so on with all the letters of the alphabet. We look for the consistency of system. However, Scripture asks how A is related to life, how B is related to life, and how C is related to life. Within human experience, things hang together which are troublesome if we look for their inter-relation in a relatively abstract system.

The Election of Grace

Secondly, where we naturally contrast God’s predestination of some people to eternal life with God’s passing over the other people, Scripture regards things differently. The contrast is between God predestining some to eternal life and giving to those who reject the gospel the genuine chance to respond positively to it. We may not be able to explain this contrast within a system, but then the fault is ours for seeking a system. When predestination to life is contrasted with passing over some from predestination to life, the matter is usually explained in terms of mercy and justice — in mercy, God predestines some to life; in justice, he leaves others aside. However, if the real contrast is between those predestined to life and those given a genuine opportunity to respond positively, then it is not a case of mercy versus justice. It is merciful to give those who refuse a genuine chance to respond. So the contrast is the contrast between two forms of mercy, even if justice also enters into it all at some point.

Is it worth going over all this ground? I think so. It remains the case that many people are put off or bewildered by the doctrines of election and of predestination. (The book makes some distinction between them, but there is also overlap.) It is worth asking whether we have to approach things in a different way from the way normally done. This is the aim of the book.

Click to order The Election of Grace by Stephen N. Williams.

Our friend and former Internet marketing assistant Jacob Thielman may have bidden farewell to Eerdmans last fall, but he certainly hasn’t forgotten us — or our books — in his new life. After a recent encounter with Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, he sent us the following reflection, which we’re pleased to share with you today. 

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“Not only through tacit approval and acquiescence has the Christian Church indirectly given its approval to lynch-law . . . , but the evangelical Christian denominations have done much towards creation of the particular fanaticism which finds its outlet in lynching.”
— Walter White, national secretary of the NAACP, 1929

Jacob Thielman

Jacob Thielman

When I was a student in the Chicagoland area, I once took a trip downtown to visit a daycare sponsored by a student organization of which I was a part. We played with kids of single parents, kids whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to a paid daycare, kids who had nothing good to look forward to after school, kids with slim chances — all racial minorities. We didn’t kid ourselves that we were providing much meaningful help, or about the education we were getting about ourselves in the process. At least I didn’t. But it was something, if barely.

As we left that night, a police cruiser pulled up beside our little band (which was made up entirely of white college kids) and asked what we were doing in this part of town after dark. There was a certain sneer in the officer’s voice that I couldn’t identify. We were exhorted to be careful and advised to go home. A friendly warning, I suppose.

Last fall, here in Grand Rapids, a young black man who goes to my church was stopped by a police officer in the neighborhood in which he lives. He was riding his bike. He was questioned vigorously and treated as a suspect for crimes unknown and nonexistent before the officer finally let him go.

In her book Dear White Christians, Jennifer Harvey makes it clear that these unequal experiences are the rule, not the exception. Or better, they are the norm, the system, the facts on the ground. They are material realities not solved simply through amending our attitudes or our speech.

But Harvey’s book is not directed to police officers who profile young men based on their race. It is directed to “justice-minded” Christians — people who, as the subtitle suggests, are still longing for racial reconciliation despite the failure (for all its successes) of the Civil Rights Movement to achieve it. And Harvey’s question to people like me is very simple: how can we, as white people, continue to call for reconciliation when the material damage that was done through slavery and the era of Jim Crow goes unaddressed — and in fact continues to have material consequences that are perpetuated often by the very people who claim to long for reconciliation?

Harvey sketches a brief history of the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to lend some context to this question. She makes the telling point that while slavery cost many black people and families everything — impoverishing, disenfranchising, and even incarcerating multiple generations of innocent people — reconciliation does not cost those who have benefited from this oppression anything at all. To reconcile is, it might appear, free. No wonder it’s so popular! You would be crazy not to say you are for reconciliation.

Dear White Christians

Dear White Christians

From this perspective, even the statement that reconciliation is “inadequate” itself falls short; as if this sort of action or attitude were even on the correct scale. The “reconciliation paradigm,” as Harvey calls it, must give way to a “reparations paradigm” which seeks to address the material harm that white people have brought about and benefited from.

It seems to me that in this racially charged environment — an environment which, as I have seen, stretches from the toughest ghettos to the sleepiest suburbs — the least our experiences merit is an honest conversation about white responsibility among those who are still holding nearly all the cards. Dear White Christians invites white people into that uncomfortable conversation about their material responsibilities, given the history of material injustice into which we have all been born.

The chilling quote above, cited from James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, rings only too true to a white southern evangelical like myself. There is, on its face, nothing wrong with evangelical fervor, but its abuses run so far and so wide that it can be difficult to see how its virtues could outweigh those sins. In truth, they don’t. The good news is neither news nor good in such mouths anymore. Something more is required of us than resting in the comfort of abstract reconciliation — just as something more was required of Zaccheus, and the rich young ruler, and the rich man who ignored Lazarus. If evangelical fervor is ever rightly directed in the hearts of the powerful, then as in all believers it is directed first and last toward humbling oneself as a sinner before our Savior — and this not for some eventual puffing up, but because there is no other posture for those who know the one true God, before whose burning justice we can only know His love as mercy.

Click to read a guest post by author Jennifer Harvey here on EerdWord, to order Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, or to explore other titles in our Prophetic Christianity Series.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He wrote the following foreword for Allan Aubrey Boesak’s new book Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics.

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Many Christians, when they hear the word “hope,” think of being delivered from this present evil world when they die and entering heaven. Hope for them is hope for the Age to Come, as they understand that. Allan Boesak affirms the hope of Christians for the Age to Come; but the hope of which he writes in this book is different. The hope here is the hope for justice in this present age. This is the hope that the prophet Isaiah expressed when he said of the Messiah to come:

He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
(Isa. 42:1-4)

Dare We Speak of Hope?

Dare We Speak of Hope?

Just as many Christians think of hope for the Age to Come and not of hope for justice in this present age when they hear the word, so too do many Christians, when they hear the word “justice,” think of criminal justice. They identify justice with passing judgment on wrongdoers.

Boesak has been the victim of unjust punishment; he could write eloquently and incisively about justice and injustice in the criminal justice system. But his subject here is not criminal justice. Criminal justice presupposes a more basic form of justice: it becomes relevant when someone has wronged someone, treated someone unjustly. Criminal justice becomes relevant when there has been a violation of justice. But this implies that criminal justice cannot be the only form of justice; there has to be another, more basic, form of justice, a form whose violation makes criminal justice relevant. Call this other form primary justice. Boesak’s topic in this book is primary justice. More precisely, his subject is the struggle for the righting of primary in-justice and the role of hope in that unavoidably conflictual struggle. In that struggle the question of hope is always on everybody’s mind, and in that struggle it’s all too easy to lose hope.

Boesak is not writing about this struggle from some perch on high, up above the fray. The location from which he writes is down in the trenches. Boesak was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and that experience shapes his discussion, giving it an unusual poignancy, vividness, and concreteness. It is because Boesak writes from the perspective of someone who has been part of the struggle to right injustice that his discussion takes the fresh and innovative form that it does: we can speak of hope, he says, only if we also speak of woundedness, only if we also speak of anger and courage, only if we also speak of struggle, only if we also speak of seeking peace, only if we also speak of fragile faith, only if we also speak of dreaming. One and all, these are essential components of the struggle to right injustice.

This is not, however, the narrative of a resister. Though there is a good deal of narrative in it, this is a theological essay, the theology made tangibly concrete by the fact that a good deal of it consists of Boesak’s reflecting theologically on his own experiences as a member and leader of a resistance movement. This is theology in concreto. I should add, however, that Boesak is not myopically fixated on the South African experience; he regularly brings into the picture other struggles to right injustice.

What also lends concreteness to the theology is the wealth of biblical exegesis. Boesak is a theologian whose thinking is shaped at least as much, if not more, by careful reading of Scripture as it is by the writings of his fellow theologians. Boesak reads Scripture through the eyes of the downtrodden. Given his experience, how could he not? As a result, I had the sense over and over, while reading the manuscript, of scales falling from my eyes. Above I quoted the passage in which Isaiah says, of the promised Messiah, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” I have never known what to make of these words. Dare We Speak of Hope? has opened my eyes to what Isaiah surely meant; it has opened my eyes to the meaning of a good many other passages as well. Though Boesak is, by profession, a theologian rather than a biblical scholar, he is, nonetheless, an extraordinarily insightful exegete. His exegesis is informed by wide acquaintance with biblical scholarship, but he is not afraid to challenge the scholars when he thinks they have missed the point.

The pursuit of social justice — and the struggle to right social injustice — almost always involves politics; and politics almost always involves, or should involve, the pursuit of social justice and the struggle for the righting of social injustice. Thus it is that a good deal of this book is about politics. Indeed, it is all about politics — though not only about politics. Boesak does not pull his punches when it comes to the present-day politics of South Africa and the United States; he is a bracing and undaunted prophetic critic of current politics in these two countries. But the seaminess, the cowardice, the obeisance to power and money that characterize politics today do not lead Boesak to urge Christians to avoid politics. Politics, he says, “is a vortex of expectations, disillusionments, and bewilderments, but we cannot step away from it or from our commitment to make it work for justice.”

Then he adds these words:

Hope holds us captive; we cannot give her up, let go of her hand, lest we become utterly lost. Yet we now know that where she is to be found is not in the places of comfort and safety. . . . Time and time again, it seems, we have to learn the lesson that while our hope has to shape our politics, the center of our hope never lies in politics or politicians. Christians have to look elsewhere if we are to find a hope that is durable, life-affirming, and life-giving. If we are to challenge and change the world, [we must] keep “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (p. 176).

To those who engage in the struggle to right injustice, every day often looks like Good Friday. In this eloquent, challenging, and deeply spiritual book, Boesak forcefully reminds us that after Good Friday comes Easter. So we dare speak of hope.

Click to order Allan Aubrey Boesak’s Dare We Speak of Hope?

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America from 1994 to 2011 and is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church.

An active participant in the Global Christian Forum, Granberg-Michaelson attended the Pentecostal World Conference last week, which was held August 27–30 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As the conference wrapped up on Friday, he sent us this firsthand report of his time there. 

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High-octane contemporary worship with smoke, flashing lights, and words on huge screens energize and empower 3,400 Pentecostals from 69 countries filling the Calvary Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This is the 23rd Pentecostal World Conference, a triennial gathering of pastors, leaders, and youth from around the globe. I’m here as part of a delegation from the Global Christian Forum, warmly invited, seated right in the front, and including representatives from the Lutheran, Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mennonite, African-Instituted and Reformed church bodies, all members of the GCF steering committee. We’re easy to pick out of the crowd, since we’re the only ones who don’t spontaneously raise our hands in worship. I hope that image doesn’t make it to the big screens.

The explosive growth of Pentecostalism is an astonishing chapter in the story of world Christianity’s modern history. In 1970, Pentecostals (including charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations) totaled about 62 million, or 5% of the total Christian population. In the four decades since, Pentecostals have grown at 4 times the rate of overall Christianity, and 4 times faster than the world’s population growth. Today they number about 600 million — one out of every four Christians in the world, and one out of every twelve people alive today. Most of this growth has come in the global South, in places like Africa, South America, and — yes — Malaysia.

The Pentecostal World Conference doesn’t look much like a typical denominational or ecumenical assembly. It’s more like a global revival service. Several of the world’s best known Pentecostal preachers and leaders deliver stirring messages, complete with altar calls for those seeking the fresh empowerment of God’s Spirit in their lives and ministries. It’s a far cry from a Reformed Church in America General Synod, which I helped organize for many years. But these keynote speakers, along with the workshops held each day of the conference, open a window into global Pentecostalism’s present trends, challenges, and directions.

From Times Square to Timbuktu

From Times Square to Timbuktu

In writing From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, I found that one of the most intriguing questions I encountered is how rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the global South deal with social and economic issues within their societies. So in Kuala Lumpur, I was especially attentive to what might be said by the world’s Pentecostal leadership about the biblical call to justice and mercy. And I heard a lot that I wish I could now go back and add to my book.

Certainly most speakers focused on unleashing the power of God’s Holy Spirit in the ongoing transformation of hearts and lives, and on offering spiritual encouragement for the demanding challenges of ministry. But some striking messages opened doorways into the transformation of injustices in the world.

Billy Wilson, for instance, is one of more influential persons in the Pentecostal world, and he recently became president of Oral Roberts University. In his address, Wilson urged Pentecostals to pay attention to more than just the first four verses of Acts 2, and he went on to explain how the whole chapter shows the church responding to concrete social needs. Deeply concerned with empowering a younger generation, Billy Wilson maintained that they have been “graced” with a passion for justice in the earth.  These future leaders desire to do ministry that integrates this practical dimension of faith.

Among a series of workshops, I went to one focused on Pentecostalism, social engagement, and justice. There, Ivan Satyavrata, who heads an Assemblies of God ministry in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, presented a talk titled, “Power to the Poor: The Pentecostal Tradition of Social Engagement.” Part of his thesis was that “the extraordinary success of the Pentecostal movement is largely due to its reach to those on the periphery of society.”

Satyavrata argued persuasively from history that early Pentecostalism had a deep, intentional social outreach embedded within its ministries. While fear of the “Social Gospel” in the twentieth century hindered theological articulation of these commitments, concrete social engagement that socially and economically empowers the marginalized is a feature of much Pentecostal ministry found around the world today. In talking with Ivan, we discovered that we had drawn on some of the same sociological studies of this question. He was delighted to get a copy of my book, and I’m sure we’ll have more contact in the future.

On the last day, Glenn Burris Jr. spoke powerfully on the theme of extending God’s mercy. Burris is President of The Foursquare Church, which has nearly 7,000 licensed ministers and congregations both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Drawing upon Isaiah 58 and Micah 6:8, Burris spoke passionately on what it means to offer God’s mercy to others, and he called for “mobilizing the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” In ending his talk, Glen Burris asked the music group to return and sing again “Hosanna,” from Hillsong, focusing on this line: “Break my heart with what breaks Yours.”

It’s this call for Spirit-filled responses to what breaks God’s heart that can propel Pentecostals into growing social engagement around issues of injustice, often experienced first hand in the lives of those on the margins of society who frequently seek God in Pentecostal congregations.

Click to order Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church.

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