In February I traveled to Turkey to visit the sites of several early Christian churches. I’ve been posting since then about those churches and their cultural context. Most recently, I wrote about the ways in which the churches to whom the book of Revelation is addressed were pressured to compromise with the surrounding culture. This post will look at how other first century churches responded to societal pressures. In Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses, Bruce W. Winter reviews the challenges and the church’s response in several local situations, as revealed in the New Testament and in contemporaneous historical sources. I’ll briefly describe three such situations.

When the apostle Paul first visited Corinth, the Jewish leaders opposed him and tried to bring a criminal case against him before Galio, the procounsul of the province of Achaea. However, as described in Acts 18:12-17, Galio indicated that this was an internal Jewish matter. That response meant that the Christian assembly in Corinth was considered a Jewish gathering. That matters because those who lived in the area were expected to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Jews were exempted from participation in veneration of the emperor, and Galio’s ruling extended that exemption to Christians. Still, some Corinthian Christians apparently participated in feasts at the imperial temple; this seems to be what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 8. They were tempted both to enhance their social standing and to eat well:

“It is understandable, given the prestige and the sheer extravagance of such celebrations, that some Christians whose social status entitled them to participate rationalized their participation…” Winter, p.225

Compromise isn’t always due to persecution; carrots as well as sticks can motivate it.

Winter also describes the situation in Galatia, a region of Asia Minor visited by Paul during his first missionary journey. He later wrote a letter to the Galatians to challenge a group within the church–the Judaizers–who were trying to convince Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised and follow ceremonial aspects of the Torah. The dispute between legalism and faith was a theological one but also had practical implications for living in the local setting. Whereas in Achaea Christians were considered to be Jews and thereby were granted an exemption from the requirement that they perform ritual sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor, the status of Christians was more ambiguous in other provinces, and thus there was more risk of persecution. This seems to be what Paul was referring to when he wrote in Gal. 6:12 about the motivation of the Judaizers:

” As many as are wanting to make a good showing in the flesh, these are attempting to compel* you to be circumcised, only so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (LEB)

Winter suggests that circumcision would make a “good showing in the flesh” in that those circumcised would be seen by society as having become Jewish–after all, they had acquired the fleshly mark that distinguished Jewish males. And if all the male Gentile converts underwent circumcision, the church as a whole would be insulated from legal sanctions:

“The results of this masterful solution proposed and so strongly promoted by some Galatian Christians, if accepted, meant that all Christians in Galatia had a legal status in the eyes of their fellow citizens. They would be considered Jewish either by birth or by proselytisation. They would be exempt from having to give divine honours to the Caesars and participation in other events that Rome had so skilfully linked into cultural events.” . Winter, p. 248

The problem was that this strategy for avoiding persecution was in effect a denial of a core component of the gospel message–that salvation doesn’t come through obedience to the law but by God’s grace extended to those who put their trust in Christ. It must have taken considerable courage to reject the false teaching of the Judiazers when doing so made one vulnerable to being prosecuted by the Roman authorities.

Agora in Perga, a city Paul visited after founding churches in Galatia

The book of Hebrews also alludes to ways that the surrounding culture created hardship for Christians. Again, the issue is that, by not expressing veneration for the gods and the emperor, the Christians aroused suspicion that they were subversive. David deSilva explains the public’s view as follows:

“Worship of the deities was something of a symbol for one’s dedication to the relationships that kept society stable and prosperous. By abstaining from the former, Christians (like the Jews) were regarded with suspicion as potential violators of the laws and subversive elements within the empire.” (Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews,” p. 12)

In the past, this attitude toward Christian converts had resulted in harsh measures being directed against them. The sufferings they had endured are catalogued in Heb. 10:32-34:

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”

Winter indicates that the public insult the author refers to typically occurred at the local theatre. The person or persons to be so exposed would be put on stage and subjected to degrading comments from the audience. The purpose would be to shame the victims into complying with societal expectations. Such episodes also provided entertainment for the crowd. The “persecution” here could well have been public floggings. For some, humiliation was followed by imprisonment. Roman prisons didn’t provide the inmates with any sort of provision, so the situation of an incarcerated Christian was dire unless their faith community came to their aid. Finally, their property could be seized by the authorities. Roman law stated that “the property of those who ought to be accused, or have been caught committing a crime, or who have killed themselves should be confiscated.” (quote from Winter, p. 274)

Christians could be charged with the crime of not participating in ritual worship of the emperor. They could also be charged with meeting together regularly. Legislation under Augustus had forbidden all associations from meeting more than weekly. Jews were granted exemptions from both these laws, but it was under the discretion of the local governor as to whether Christians were considered Jews. The prohibition against frequent meetings puts the author’s admonition that they not neglect to meet together (10:24) in a rather ominous light!

So the consequences that the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced as a result of their faith were worse than those faced by the Corinthian Christians, and probably also than those faced by the Galatians. Still, there hadn’t been any martyrs yet in among the recipients (12:4). They endured their initial persecution. Would they continue to endure the hardships that come with being members of a reviled minority, though? Winter thinks that another, even more shameful and disruptive threat may have awaited some of them–exile. That might be the meaning of the suggestion that the hearers go to Jesus “outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (13:13) Persevere, says the writer of the letter, and you will receive your reward. That is a message that heartened the followers of Christ throughout the ages. It’s by God’s grace that enough managed to persevere despite the terrible cost they bore.

 

I’ve been posting about a recent trip to Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor, discussing Roman religion, Roman influence, and Roman architecture. In this post, I’ll switch my focus to the Apostle Paul, who was a missionary to Galatia and Asia, two provinces in Asia Minor, as well as to Greece and Rome. The things I’ve learned (and discussed in earlier posts) about the cultural context in which Paul evangelized have given me a better appreciation of his strategy.

Sociologist Rodney Stark indicates (in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History) that, as a new religion, Christianity appealed initially to those who were likely to be early adopters of cultural innovations. As he describes them, early adopters tend to be above average in income and education. They are attracted to new ideas and have the sophistication to understand those ideas and see the need for them. As Paul traveled, he encountered two groups that had such qualities: Hellenized Jews and upper-class Gentiles.

Jews had settled in Asia Minor well before the first century and thus had for decades or even centuries been influenced by Hellenistic culture.  They were often well-to-do and lived in the major cities in the region. Many had taken Greek names and had accepted some elements of pagan religious thought. At the same time, they continued to meet in synagogues and study the Torah. An example of such a congregation was located in Sardis; the remains of the synagogue there showed strong Greek and Roman influences, such as this altar flanked by statues of lions:

When Paul came to a city, he typically went first to the synagogue and spoke to the congregation there about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark Strauss, the New Testament scholar who accompanied our tour, pointed out an example of this strategy recorded in Acts 13. Paul had come to Pisdian Antioch, went to the synagogue, and was invited to speak. He began with a recitation of the history of Israel–the stay in Egypt, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the judges, and the start of the monarchy. All this would have been familiar to his listeners. He paused when he got to David, describing him as not only royalty but as obedient, a man after God’s own heart. Paul used David as a springboard to leap over the next thousand years, to Christ:

“From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.” (v. 23, NIV)

His hearers would know the promise Paul was alluding to: that God would raise up a descendant of David who would establish an everlasting kingdom. That person would be the savior of Israel. In his commentary on Acts, N.T. Wright explains why a first-century Jewish audience would recognize the need for a savior:

“…Israel, though God’s people, were not living in freedom, were not being much of a light to the nations, and were often finding it difficult to keep their own law, whether because of pressure from pagan society or laziness within the Jewish community. All was not well: when would God’s purposes finally come true, when would Israel be rescued from her continuing plight? That is the implied question, a corporate as well as an individual problem, to which Paul offers the solution of Jesus the Saviour.” (Acts for Everyone, Part 2)

Paul went on to describe selected events of the gospel, culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. “We tell you the good news,” he adds. “What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (v. 32, 33a) He supported his argument by quoting from Psalm 2, Isaiah 55, and Psalm 16. He was speaking to them as fellow Jews, recipients of the promises contained in scripture. At the same time, his description of what Christ has accomplished has more universal appeal:

“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin…” (v. 38,9)

Stark describes the appeal of the Christian message to this Jewish audience:

“Christianity offered twice as much cultural continuity to the Hellenized Jews as to Gentiles. If we examine the marginality of the Hellenized Jews, torn between two cultures, we may note how Christianity offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them.”

But this raises additional questions. Paul’s appeal in Acts 13 seems to focus almost entirely on his listeners’ religious roots in Judaism. How did his message appeal to the other main cultural influence on Hellenistic Jews, the Greek and Roman view of the world? And how did it resolve contradictions between them? To answer that, have to look at how Paul spoke to followers of Greek and Roman religion. I’ll consider that in my next post.

Entrance to Perga, another city where Paul preached.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem

The last several posts on this blog have been reflections on my recent trip to Israel. Among other things, I’ve talked about my efforts to approach the trip as a pilgrim, the context that I gained from visiting Biblical sites, and the insights the trip gave me into the Israelites and their God as well as the son of God, Jesus. Where does all that leave me, though? It was a great trip, but, what difference did it make in my life?

I went on the trip hoping that it would benefit me spiritually. I wanted more than just feeling God’s presence now and then while traveling; I hoped to change something in my thinking or behavior so that I would consistently be close to God. In my first post, I talked about going on the trip as a pilgrim, that is, as one who travels to a sacred place as a devotee, someone seeking spiritual benefit from the voyage. Ideally, I would not only go as a pilgrim but return as one. Pilgrimage, after all, doesn’t have to end just because travel has ended. What’s most important is not the physical journey but the journey of the soul, as portrayed in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Traveling back home can be an extension of the pilgrim journey, as T.S. Eliot alluded to in Four Quartets:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

When I returned home, I think that I stayed in the pilgrim mindset for a month and a half, possibly two months. During that period of time, many people asked me about the trip and I was writing regularly about it. Talking and writing about Israel kept me focused on the lessons I learned and helped me partly transcend time–my mind was to some extent in first-century Palestine even while my body was in 21st-century America. That level of heightened awareness couldn’t last. After a while, I had written pretty much all I planned to and didn’t have as many opportunities to talk about the trip. I started to lose the sense of being a pilgrim.

I did continue to ask the key question that I began asking during the trip, though: What was I doing that kept me from becoming more like Jesus? I realized that I was spending too much time on the internet, so I tried to cut back some on that. I thought I might need to plan another pilgrimage and started to look at places to which I could travel. After a few days, though, I decided that was a false step. Making travel plans kept me from being fully present at home. Such focus on one’s immediate surroundings seems a precondition for remaining on pilgrimage–pilgrims fully inhabit each step they take rather than mentally jumping ahead to somewhere the road may eventually lead.

While I was trying to figure out ways to stay on pilgrimage I received an issue of Christian Reflection on the topic of “Traveling Well” (all issues are available here). I found several helpful references (including the above quote from Eliot). John Gatta quoted NT Wright’s  The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today: “it is not we, ultimately, who are on a journey for God in the face of Jesus. It is God who is on a journey looking for us.” God on pilgrimage! Doesn’t that describe what Christ did when he lived among us? How much God must love us to set out in search of us! Knowing of his ongoing pilgrimage helps me continue my pilgrimage.

Also in that issue, Christian T. George cited Lauren Artress’s Walking a Sacred Path, a book on labyrinth walking. Artress describes three stages in walking a labyrinth: purgation, illumination, and communion. George suggests that pilgrims pass through the same three stages. During the trip I tried to shift from being a tourist to being a pilgrim, using fasts to do so. That was the stage of purgation. I did get some illumination, I think, during those days of fasting and during my months of reflection following the trip. As I prayed over these bits of illumination, I sometimes experienced communion.

I have begun examining my daily experiences according to Artress’s scheme: am I in purgation, illumination, communion, or none of the above? I am starting to see the labyrinth/pilgrim walk as taking me in a circle: purgation, illumination, communion, then going out to the world to share God’s love, only to stray from the path and have to start again with purgation. Having this scheme in mind helps me know what to do next. Most commonly, I realize that I had gone out in the world with good intentions but got distracted. I need to get back on the pilgrim path, starting with purgation.

I’m pretty new to using this scheme of self-examination to guide my pilgrim journey. I’m sure I have lots to learn! I’ll use this blog to discuss any additional insights I discover along the way.

labyrinth

wrote recently about the old stone ruins our group saw during our recent tour of Israel. As I said in that post, seeing ruins built by different people groups separated from each other by thousands of years showed me that my historical sense is simplistic and our culture’s claims to uniqueness are totally inaccurate. I also described another lesson the ruins taught: we are very much like fortress-building ancients in our desire for security. I have a few more reflections about the ruins we saw, and they will be the subject of this post.

Our first encounter with the ruins of an ancient city occurred at Tel Gezer. While there, Tim, our tour guide, made the point that, just as the city of Gezer was situated strategically, on a trade route between Jerusalem and the coastal plain along the Aijalon Valley, we are placed strategically as well, located in a particular location in order to achieve a particular purpose. It’s not only Gezer as a whole that was located with a purpose in mind, but each stone within it was intentionally placed in such a way to form its walls, houses, and other buildings. The same can be said of us.

Peter describes Christ as a cornerstone, the stone put down first around which the rest of the wall or structure is built. Peter tells his readers, “ you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (I Peter 2:5). As a living stone, I’m meant to be part of a structure built around Christ, the cornerstone. If I was a stone standing by myself somewhere, I would accomplish nothing. Just as the stones of Gezer provided protection, shelter, and privacy only when arranged to form walls and buildings, we accomplish something meaningful only when we join together to make a larger whole.

Massebot at Tel Gezer

Massebot at Tel Gezer

At Tel Gezer there were a number of massebot (the singular form is massebah), or memorial stones. My son Elliot wrote a nice reflection on massebot  here. As with the massebot, memorials have been built by many different cultures to commemorate something thought to be worth remembering. Our age doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the memorials raised by previous generations. I recently read The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth. Bendroth suggests that one of the key features of modernity is that we disregard the past and consequently are stranded in the present. Modernity is characterized by a belief in progress, and thus is future-oriented. We think that previous generations have nothing to offer us. In consequence, we ignore the stone memorials they built and the living memorials that their lives provided.

In contrast with the modernist dismissal of everything before the present, Bendroth advises us to instead cultivate an appreciation of the past, recognizing the “infinite array of personal experiences and convictions, talents and achievements, sins and failures that make up the human race across time and space.” She calls such an appreciation “righteous remembering.” The trip to Israel was a step towards practicing righteous remembering. Believers from long ago can be massebot for me, memorial stones teaching me about the life of faith. I can also be a massebah for someone yet unborn. It’s useful to think of my life in that way.

The ruins found at archaeological sites we visited provide a nice metaphor for this process of learning from the past. Those who built on a previously used site didn’t just level the ruins and build something new atop them. They often searched the rubble for useful building materials. Thus, stones were sometimes taken from old walls or buildings and incorporated in the new structure. In some cases, this resulted in rather odd-looking walls patched together from salvaged materials.

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She'an

Wall Built from Rubble, Bet She’an

Whether or not we realize we are doing so, all of us scavenge the past for materials we then re-purpose. I’m struck with how often ideas people express as if they are original hark back to a whole range of thinkers from the past, from the Greeks and Romans through Augustine, the reformers, and the Enlightenment all the way to Freud, Nietzsche, and existentialists. I gained an appreciation for how much we all draw on such previous structures of thought from Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Becoming aware of where our ideas came from is an important step toward freeing ourselves from the prison of unexamined assumptions.

We build from the past, and are ourselves building materials that, like the stones in ancient tels, can be re-purposed. As a psychologist, I am always hoping that my clients will take something I’ve said and incorporate it in their lives. I’m essentially hoping to provide rubble that others find useful. Often they do so in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The church, the followers of Christ who are the living stones to which Peter alluded, is such a rebuilding project. We don’t look so much like an assembly of fresh-hewn, straight-edged blocks as we look like a collection of salvaged souls that are jagged and uneven but, remarkably, stand together to form a structure that God himself inhabits. It’s remarkable what he has done with a bunch of old stones!

Paul Peterson, a co-leader on the trip to Israel that I’ve been blogging about recently, talked about his father’s reaction upon returning from Israel several years ago. “I get it,” he told Paul. “Old stones. Lots of really old stones.”

What’s impressive, of course, isn’t the stones themselves but how they got to where they are. Thousands of years ago somebody stacked them atop one another to make walls, houses, temples, and the like. I’ve been reflecting on all those ruins. What lessons do they have for us?

I’ve seen “old stones” before this trip–at the acropolis in Athens, the forum in Rome, and the excavations in Ephesus, to name three places that come to mind. The Levant contains ruins that are much older than those sites, though. Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world, first settled about 11,000 years ago. When we went there we didn’t visit the site of the ancient settlements, but we did see very old ruins in other locations. For example, at Tel Arad there are ruins of a Bronze Age Canaanite city that is about 5,000 years old. The site was abandoned for about 1,500 years before the Israelites settled nearby in the 11th century B.C.

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

Canaanite ruins, Tel Arad

This pattern of successive settlements at the same site made an impression on me. We saw numerous tels–hills consisting of layer upon layer of settlement, each abandoned, then built upon by the next occupants. At the first site we visited, Tel Gezer, we sat near the city gates in the 13th level; 12 more settlements had been built atop those ruins. This level is thought to have been the city built by Solomon mentioned in I Kings 9, so it dated to about the 10th century B.C. There are more levels beneath this one; no one knows how many.

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

At the city gate, Tel Gezer

Tels confound our simplistic historical schemes that divide all of human existence into just a few categories such as ancient, medieval, and modern. Even if we look at single tel, it’s quickly apparent that many different people groups once lived there and these residents were often separated from each other in time and probably in customs as much as we are separated from figures like Julius Caesar or Clovis. That way of looking at human existence challenges our tendency to privilege living in the present, in modern times. We moderns are just putting down one layer. With the passage of enough time, if anyone remembers the USA they will probably be hard-pressed to say how it differed from the Holy Roman Empire or the Hapsburg monarchy. That’s humbling.

For the most part, the ruins we saw were walled cities or fortresses. They were probably constructed out of stone because its sturdiness provided advantages when a neighboring king decided to invade. We learned something about what made for good fortifications. For example, the city gate was the most vulnerable point so a double wall was often built there, with a chamber between the walls to hold soldiers ready to fight anyone who breached the outer gate. Of course, even the most sturdy defenses could be surmounted. At Tel Lachish and again at Masada we saw massive siege ramps built by attacking armies (the Assyrians and Romans, respectively). At both sites the attackers were ultimately successful.

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Looking up the siege ramp towards Masada

Ancient Canaanites and Jews lived in a world much different from ours, but we can understand their impulse to protect themselves. Though we no longer literally wall in our cities, modern nations use munitions, firewalls, and border fences to protect against threats. On an individual level, we lock our doors and turn on our security alarms; some of us have guns to defend ourselves. We accumulate savings to protect our retirement, buy insurance to protect against loss, and limit our openness with others to protect our emotions.

City walls were for the most part a good thing, as are our modern forms of protection. Once we have such fortifications, though, we are tempted to rely entirely on them. Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Judea:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh” (Jer. 17:5).

A couple verses later, he draws this contrast:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence is in him” (v. 7).

Trust God. Do lock your door at night, though. None of the Old Testament prophets advised God’s people to dismantle the walls around their cities so that they would have to rely on God alone. There are a couple New Testament passages in which Jesus told his followers to dispense with ordinary precautions (e.g. Luke 10:4), but these instructions don’t seem to have been intended for everyone.

How do we insure that we depend primarily on God rather than turning to other sources of security? Jesus told stories about birds and flowers to help us with this (see Matthew 6:25ff). Birds and flowers don’t erect walls, but they’re doing fine. All the fortifications I saw on the trip are a good reminder that I, too, am prone to rely too much on my defenses. It’s important to remember that God is my source of security and only by trusting in him can I live in freedom, not in fear.

During my recent tour to Israel the group visited Bethlehem. While there we went to a gift shop run by Palestinian Christians. Tim, our guide, told us that Palestinian Christians have a hard life. Tim didn’t mention the conditions under which Palestinians in general live, but just by looking out the bus windows we could see that things aren’t so good. Compared to Israeli areas, buildings are more dilapidated, cars are older and fewer in number, and more rubbish is visible. “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” but, from what we saw, at least some of its residents may find bread hard to come by.

It was apt in a way that the place of Jesus’ birth is relatively impoverished. He is the one who, as Philippians 2 puts it,

“though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.”

He was not born to royalty, or even to a well-established family in reasonably prosperous circumstances, but, as Deborah Smith Douglas puts it, “to a transient girl in an occupied country in an improvised shelter not even meant for human habitation” (‘The Poverty of God,’ Weavings, Nov./Dec. 2003). The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were surely intentional. As Douglas puts it,

“The whole amazing mystery of the Incarnation is about nothing else: out of unimaginable love God desires the deepest imaginable solidarity with our radical and inescapable insecurity.”

We all are insecure, of course, even though we defend against our lack of security by denial. Evading awareness of how little security we have is part of the modernist project: Charles Taylor describes us as having constructed “buffered selves” that minimize our sense of vulnerability. We Americans have taken this project of buffering to extremes, using both wealth and empire to quell the discomfort inherent in being creatures for whom our next breath could be the last. Douglas asks how such strategies affect our ability to appreciate what God has done:

“How can we, who go to such lengths to deny our own vulnerability, hope to see the astounding vulnerability of God in the Incarnation? Can we even want to encounter divinity become powerless? Can we even begin to imagine the total ‘self-emptying’ (see Phil 2:7) that Jesus undertook in love in order to ‘live and die as one of us’?”

Our tour may have brought us closer to Jesus in some respects–by showing us the land in which he lived, by taking us places important in his narrative, and by teaching us about his culture. This trip didn’t overcome the gap between the vulnerability we avoid and the vulnerability he embraced, though. One problem was that we traveled as first-world tourists who were provided with accommodations at the opposite extreme from the humble stable celebrated in the nativity story. Fortunately, we were occasionally reminded of the privilege which surrounded us. The bathroom accommodations were often enough so primitive (men were regularly sent behind one set of bushes, women behind another; in one emergency, the facility was two umbrellas by the side of the road) that we became very grateful whenever an actual toilet was available. One day in Jerusalem we took a shortcut through an area where trucks were unloading garbage. We hurried past as quickly as possible, but I was glad that my nose had the opportunity to sniff aromas that were probably much more like what Jesus smelled than anything I’ll ever encounter in church. Of course, these brief episodes didn’t expose us to poverty in anything like the way that Jesus encountered it.

One question I’m left with after the trip is what am I going to do about that? Am I going to respond to Christ’s vulnerability on our behalf by becoming more vulnerable myself?  I’m not thinking so much here about risking my safety as I am about being willing to look unflinchingly at the sufferings of others, even when doing so discomforts me. Am I willing to reach out to them in love? I’ve certainly done some of this, but nowhere like what Jesus did. I certainly can do more. To follow him is to tag along even when he’s on his way to be with the poor, weak, and needy.

"The Nativity" by Albrecht Altdorfer. God among the ruins.

“The Nativity” by Albrecht Altdorfer. God among the ruins.

 

Persuading secular moderns that they should be holy is quite a challenge. Aiming this message primarily at young adults, who are bombarded by ceaseless messages to be successful, in the know, popular, or any number of other things besides holy makes the task all the more difficult. Brian Christopher Coulter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina and author of Be Holy: Find Identity/Find Belonging/Find Purpose, takes on the challenge. Coulter believes that seeking holiness is not a dreary religious obligation but something that will enrich life. He claims, “We are not invited to be holy because God needs working drones; God invites us to be holy because it is a better way for us to experience and live life (p. ix).”

Be HolyCoulter begins by alluding to the emptiness, thoughtlessness, and insecurity that characterize much of modern life. He isn’t interested in exploring these in any depth, though; he’s mainly interested in offering solutions. His answers come from orthodox Christianity, which is to say that faith in Christ is essential to him. This means more than accepting Christ’s invitation to “a relationship of forgiveness and mercy;” it also includes the life that subsequently becomes possible.

Coulter considers what the Bible says about being holy. To be holy is to be set apart. God is holy in that he is distinct from other gods and from creation. This holy God also sets his people apart; he instructs them to be holy. Holiness is more than ritual purity; it is a way of living in the world. Coulter suggests this way of living has three elements: “We reflect our Holy God by being set apart from all that is not holy, for all that is holy, and with all who are holy (p. 31).” These three elements then become the structure for the rest of the book: “set apart from” entails finding our identity, “set apart for” implies having a purpose, and “set apart with” involves belonging to a community.

In my initial reading, I thought Coulter was being too simplistic about what it means to have identity, belonging, and purpose. I had the most difficulty with identity. Coulter is certainly right in saying “Who we are is known, revealed, and loved by God (p. 59).” I love the quote he uses from Brennan Manning: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion (p. 55,6).” But isn’t it more complex than this? How do we understand the political, racial, gendered, and socioeconomic aspects of who we are? How do we sort out our views of what we can know, what is, and what is good? How do we learn what our gifts and abilities are?

Eventually I realized that I was trying to read the book as a psychological do-it-yourself guide to the issues of adolescence and early adulthood. That isn’t what Coulter has written. An early clue to his intent is his allusion to Clark Kent (i.e. Superman) in CW network’s show Smallville. Clark already has all his superpowers, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. The issue he faces is not to acquire superpowers:

“It is about embracing the gifts he has been given. It is about embracing his destiny to be Superman.
“This is us with holiness. Our choice seems to be less about becoming holy and more about embracing holiness (p. 20).”

Thus, identity, belonging, and purpose are not something we have to work to acquire. They are gifts from God that we need to accept. Accepting these gifts entails living out certain practices in our day-to-day life. Coulter does a nice job of showing how practices such as baptism, Sabbath observance, prayer, and the Eucharist fit into this holy, set-apart life.

Though I’m much older than Coulter’s target audience, I read this book because I am a Christian who is interested in being holy. The book is mostly about the early stages in the journey towards holiness, but it also contains much that is of interest to those further along the path towards maturity. As might be expected given his target audience, Coulter uses many examples from popular culture–celebrity quotes, music, movies, TV, and the like. Less expected are his references to writers with some intellectual heft, including Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher, Walter Brueggemann, and Thomas Merton. Sometimes, I wished Coulter had developed further the points made by these thinkers–Kierkegaard on the longing for meaning, for example, or Brueggemann on the Sabbath. Still, the references are available for those who wish to explore them more fully, and it is nice to know that Coulter’s ideas were informed by such thinkers.

Coulter writes clearly. He pauses every page or so to emphasize his main points in a few short sentences, each standing as a separate paragraph, as in this from the section on belonging:

“Prayer builds community.
“Prayer builds relationships.
“Be holy.
“Pray (p. 102).”

These staccato-like sentences serve as useful summaries. I never did get acclimated to his use of hashtags to make wry comments, but this was easy enough to ignore. I recommend Coulter’s book not only for young adults interested in the spiritual life, but also for older adults, be they newly interested in holiness or further along the faith journey but wishing to reflect on the nature of that journey.

Note: Thanks to Chalice Press for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.