Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus, Craig Hill (Gupta)

 

A handful of years back, one of my senior colleagues told me this: “I have been hearing from people in the guild that you are ‘ambitious.'” I said, “Ok, thanks.” He said, “Ummm….that’s not a compliment.” That moment left me both surprised and disappointed. Some were interpreting the hard work I felt I had done as something off-putting and cocky. It made me feel guilty for being “ambitious.” Is ambition really that bad?

I just finished reading Craig Hill’s new book on this subject, Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus (Eerdmans). It strikes me as one of those books that will help many Christian leaders and aspiring professors to reflect maturely on the matter of ambition. It is not a traditional “academic book,” but more like a series of theological reflections on the matter. Here are a few memorable nuggets:

HillA quote from C.S. Lewis where he likens Hell to the kind of stuffy academic atmosphere of his time: “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment” (Hill, 20-21; from Screwtape Letters, preface, p. ix).

[Hill offers a helpful statement about humility and generosity in our leadership]:

It is only in a specific and limited sense that the NT authors ask us to deny ourselves. They do not teach self-abnegation, that is, the loss or destruction of self. Christianity is not masochistic, and it should not promote, much less require, self-loathing. We are asked to give out of the abundance we have received, and for every loss, there is a corresponding, even greater gain. It is essential to understanding, however, that this is not necessarily a gain in kind. There is no guarantee that finding our identity in God is going to make us famous or wealthy. Indeed, it is overwhelmingly likely to have the opposite effect. (33)

[Later]

Note that Jesus did not ask his hearers to become nothing. It is the source of their significance, not their need for significance, that was challenged. (50)

[Hill paraphrasing 2 Cor 12:7-9]: “we can be filled by God only to the extent that we are not already full of ourselves” (103)

These are just a few snippets. At the end of it all, Hill concludes that ambition is neither inherently good or bad. He writes, “[Ambition] is the fire that warms the house or, unchecked, burns it to the ground. A gifted person who lacks ambition will achieve little. Yes, and the worst people in history have been spectacularly ambitious” (150).

Along the way, I have learned that I cannot control what other people think of me. I need to be driven by what I think is right, keep my pride in check, have friends and colleagues who can graciously call me out if I err, and pass on generosity to those who are struggling just as others have lifted me up. I think we will be held back from doing all that we are called to do if we are overly occupied with how our work “looks” to others. I try to believe that if we commit ourselves to quality (and not just quantity), we should not be embarrassed with our work and productivity.

 

Gowler -Parables After Jesus Part 2 (Gupta)

Parables After JesusWe are continuing a short series on David Gowler’s The Parables After Jesus (Baker; PART 1)

Here we will look briefly at chapters 3 and 4, respectively on the interpretation and use of the parables in the 16th-17th centuries, and on the 18th-19th centuries.

Chapter 3: “The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Here Gowler examines ten case studies, we will just mention a few of these. The first is Martin Luther. Luther rejected allegorical interpretation, calling it “stupid.” He promoted a more simple approach which drew out the plain meaning, though Luther himself did not discount the possibility of symbolic meaning. As can be expected, Luther focused his interpretation of the parables on Christ. When it comes to the parables, they often focus on moral behavior and good works. How does Luther handle this? According to Gowler, as far as Luther was concerned, “The ‘works’ are outward signs of one’s inner faith…Works do not make anyone good; instead, works bear witness to the genuineness of one’s faith” (120).

I was also fascinated by Gowler’s discussion of Shakespeare’s interest in the Synoptic parables. Apparently, Shakespeare was especially infatuated with the plot and themes of the Parable of the Prodigal Son – sibling rivalries, rebellious children, mercy, restoration, etc. Gowler notes how Shakespeare alludes or tips his hat to the prodigal son in numerous works such as Comedy of ErrorsLove’s Labour LostKing LearTimon of AthensTwelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, and Two Gentlemen of Verona.Prodigal.jpg

Perhaps my favorite case study in this chapter is Rembrandt. While Rembrandt famously portrayed many biblical texts in his artwork, he did few on parables, though when he did, they all came from Luke (152). Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son is especially famous, though he did more than one version of the scene (see image). It is especially satisfying that Gowler included artwork images throughout the book.

Chapter 4: “The Afterlives of Jesus’ Parables in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”

There are nine case studies here, including Fanny Crosby and Charles Spurgeon, but I will briefly mention tidbits about Leo Tolstoy and Emily Dickenson.

Tolstoy was not shy about criticizing the structured and dogmatic Christianity of his day. He longed for the simple way of Jesus that focused on love of God and love of neighbor. He wrote a story called “Where Love Is, God Is” and drew from his own reading of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Dickenson also took interest in this Parable, which inspired a poem based on Matthew 25:35 called “I bring an unaccustomed wine.” Dickenson’s interest in and use of the parables is not just thematic, but perhaps also hermeneutical, as her reflection on poetic communication seems to align with the riddling nature of parables.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant–

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind

(see Gowler, p. 197)

Again, very insightful chapters, lots of fun learning, and prods the reader to follow up on many of these interpreters of the parables.

 

Salvation by Allegiance Alone – Bates (Gupta)

 

SBAAAbout two years ago, Matt Bates was traveling in Oregon and we had a chance to meet up for the first time. He heard that I was working on a book on Paul’s faith language, and I knew he was writing his Salvation by Allegiance Alone (SBAA; Baker, 2017). It is nice now to see the end product, though sadly my own project is not going to see the bookshelf for a while longer since I am not quite done yet.

In many ways, I wish Matt’s book didn’t need to be written. While I deeply appreciate his thoughtful discussion of this subject, to me it represents a reading of Scripture that should simply be clear and assumed, rather than something needing such careful defense. But the reality is that there is a history of scholarship that has locked “faith” (pistis) into being something cognitive, a non-work, and even some have referred to it as “passive”! Matt does a fine job of connecting pistis in the NT to the broader idea of commitment to the kingship of Jesus, the kingdom of God, and what it means to trust God. I will not take the time to give a thorough summary (see HERE), but rather I will give a few points of consideration.

Strengths: The idea that pistis is a polyvalent and polysemous word has been long Bates.jpgacknowledged, and volcanic pressure has been building against a passive or merely cognitive view of pistis such that Matt’s work serves as a major eruption point. As Matt acknowledges himself, this is a broader look at the word pistis, how it functions as allegiance or trust language, and how one can assimilate that within a kingdom perspective on the Christian faith. The way he constructs this broader biblical-theological perspective is refreshing, clear, and thoughtful. And Matt is disarming with his humor, which helps the reader ease into what could be a tense subject. Matt also masterfully connects pistis language across the NT, trying to be careful not to operate with a canon within a canon – this is much harder to accomplish than one thinks. Finally, Matt handles thorny questions and potential pushback with wisdom and aplomb, especially related to questions about judgment and works (see esp. ch 5). You can tell this material has been “classroom tested” because he has anticipated the most pressing questions and responds to them with thoughtful answers – the answers are not simple or “neat,” but if they were I would be very disappointed.

Random Note: Matt – my friend – you sound very Wesleyan in this book. Just an observation (*I will wait patiently for your further awakening*)

Other considerations: Again, I want to acknowledge that I have studied the use of pistis in Paul (and the Synoptics) rather carefully over the last several years and in the main I am in hearty agreement with Matt’s arguments in Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Still, in the spirit of ongoing dialogue, I want to raise some additional considerations.

  • A couple of times (e.g., 44, 103) Matt tries to translate/interpret the verb pisteuo as “give allegiance.” While I agree broadly with how Matt reads pistis, I am much less persuaded (esp without thorough defense) that this applies to the verb. We simply don’t find enough (any?) clear uses of pisteuo that would lead one in this direction.
  • As Matt himself explains, SBAA is more than a lexical study; still, I think he focused too narrowly on pistis. I think he would have profited from weaving pistis (as “allegiance”) into the wider fabric of the way the NT expresses inter-relationality, with (e.g.) language of knowing, loving, sharing, pleasing, honoring, remembering, etc.
  • Matt spends ample time on the motif of the kingship of Jesus and the Kingdom of God – and rightly so – but given how often pistis appears in political texts in non-Jewish/non-Christian literature, it would have been very helpful for this book to show how commonly pistis appears in ancient texts in relation to political alliances between armies (or between soldiers), in patronage language (see Zeb Crook’s work), and in Greek discourse on friendship. In my opinion, it is crucial that this word pistis is placed within the wider context of its daily use in Antiquity – nobody would have considered it a “passive” or “non-works” term. These points could have strengthened Matt’s overall argumentation.
  • Finally, I think Matt whetted the readers’ appetite for the notion that pistis is a rich and complex word that defies a single meaning or translation in the NT, but he does not do much more than concentrate on the times when it means “allegiance” (or something similar) and leaves aside other occasions where it has a different meaning. I can understand why he does that (to stay focused on his main concerns), but it seems to hold the reader is suspense (until more is said on the subject….*ahem*).

When I saw the endorsements for SBAA, I thought, “wow, Gary Anderson, Scot McKnight, Mike Gorman, Mike Bird, Josh Jipp – these are great conservation partners and allies.” It is also a testimony to Matt’s rich teaching. There have already been critics, but I know Matt welcomes the dialogue, including pushback. Congrats to Matt on this – and I hope many will read and engage in Salvation by Allegiance Alone.