How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

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In a post on the ‘community of the Beatitudes and the restoration of creation’ I suggested that while the Beatitudes are not universal ‘Christian’ truths but contingent teaching aimed at the formation in Israel of a community of transitional renewal, it may nevertheless make sense to ‘transpose’ them from a minor eschatological key into a major key of creational renewal for use by the church today. Jim Hoag has picked up on that word ‘transpose’ and asks—rather astutely, I think—whether this amounts to a step back in the direction of an old school, undifferentiated, ahistorical hermeneutic. It actually comes as a pleasant surprise to be faulted for hermeneutical inconsistency.

It may be that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it. But what I think it comes down to is how the Jesus story relates to the bigger story into which it has been inserted—and therefore to the continuing existence of the people of God after the eschatological crisis foreseen in the New Testament. The metaphor of ‘transposition’—I am thinking of the transposition of a melody from one key to another—is tentatively inserted at the interface between these two stories. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

I would stress, first, that I think Jesus’ vision was restricted to the looming reality of divine judgment on Israel in the form of the disastrous war against Rome. More or less everything he has to say to Israel and to his disciples may be interpreted within the field of this first horizon. The Sermon on Mount—assuming that he actually gave some such consolidated teaching—defines an alternative community that would survive the storm and flood of God’s wrath against his people (cf., Matt. 7:24-27). The Old Testament background to the Beatitudes confirms this imminent historical-eschatological orientation.

This is not to say, of course, that what Jesus says and does has no repercussions, whether for the people of God or for the nations, beyond the historical horizon of the war. It is precisely because he ensures—through his life and death—the emergence of a viable eschatological community that the continuing effective presence in the world of a priestly, prophetic, serving, and blessed people is safeguarded.

The limited story of the judgment, renewal, reconfiguration, and eventual vindication of Israel, which Paul expands to include the confrontation between the emerging church and Greek-Roman paganism, fits into the bigger story of the people of God, beginning with the call of Abraham to be the father of an alternative ‘creation’, a different humanity.

This elementary diagram may (or may not) serve to clarify the narrative structure. The story of humanity generally is in the background: it impinges on the story of the witness of the people of God to the renewal of creation mostly at moments when that people is threatened by or made subject to aggressive imperial powers: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and last but by no means least, Rome.

But the central crisis of the narrative is the catastrophe of AD 70. First from Jesus’ restricted Palestinian perspective, then from that of the expanding church, the New Testament tells the story of this crisis—how a community loyal to Jesus survived the devastation of second temple Judaism and would go on to effect the justification of Israel’s God in the eyes of the nations, culminating concretely in the conversion of the empire. At this point the bigger story resumes, only the terms and conditions for the existence of this ‘new creation’ people in the world have dramatically changed.

What determines the shape of the big story, therefore, is not salvation but election, vocation, mission, or witness: Abraham was not saved, he was called. But when that witness fails, sometimes catastrophically, there arises a need for the justification of the Creator God and for the salvation of the community that was supposed to stand in the world as a witness to the goodness of creation. It is that process of the justification of God before the nations and the restoration of the failed witness that the New Testament describes.

But the question arises as to how the inner story of justification and redemption leaves its mark on the outer story of corporate witness. At one level it is simply a matter of historical continuity: just as Israel was saved through the Exodus or through the exile and then moved on, so Israel was saved through the crisis of the judgment, renewal, reconfiguration and vindication that the New Testament describes. The church continues to live in light of the continually evoked memory of the story of its transformation. The continued observance of the Lord’s Supper has this function, perhaps too baptism—but there are many ways to tell the story.

The dynamic effects of that transformation also remain with us: we do not cease to be a people in relationship with the Creator, under the lordship of the Son who was given the nations as his inheritance, and empowered to live as new creation by the Holy Spirit.

But because we are no longer directly living the Jesus-Paul story of eschatological transition, these dynamics inevitably change. Jesus is not primarily one whom we seek to emulate as firstborn martyr from the dead—we draw instead on the early hints that we find in the New Testament regarding his cosmic or creational status. The firstborn from the dead is also firstborn of all creation: he determines not only the vindication of the suffering church but also the dimensions and character of this new creation people beyond the eschatological crisis. This is what lies behind Jim’s statement about historical context liberating the church today to make sense of its own eschatological reality.

Now we come back to the transposition metaphor. I think that the analogy or parallel between the Jesus who was the Son of man, who ensured that the persecuted body of his disciples was included in his vindication and glorification, and the Jesus through whom all things were made suggests a further way in which we may draw on the inner story today—that is, draw on the narrative, symbolic and instructional material of the New Testament.

The fact is that if we keep retelling the story, even with a strong and clear sense of its narrative distance—its irrelevance, so to speak—we are bound to be impressed by the character of its story and, of course, by the character of Jesus. So at a very theoretical level, I wonder whether we may not find ways to give more deliberate expression to this indirect influence. In effect, we will be doing what the prophetic imagination as always done—finding intertextual congruence, loosely and creatively retelling old narratives in order to make sense of new circumstances.

So I do not think that we are waiting for the kingdom of God in the way that the early church waited for Israel’s God to intervene and overturn the status quo. I do not think that the promise that the meek shall inherit the land makes much sense in our context. And we can only rather dishonestly lay claim to the closing assurances about persecution. But the relationship between the inner and outer stories is such that we need something like the Beatitudes—the Beatitudes transposed into a creational or global or cosmic key, restated under new conditions—if we are going to continue the witness of the people of God to the renewal of creation.

paulf | Wed, 10/27/2010 - 17:18 | Permalink

I don't understand the point about Jesus and the looming destruction of Israel. The Beatitudes and parables all had one basic message: in the soon-to-come kingdom the world was going to be different, and you should start acting that way now. Justice and peace would reign instead of oppression and constant war.

When you try to make it more complicated than that, you start to run into problems that require ridiculously complicated ... sigh .... hermeneutics to resolve.

Jesus taught that God would rule via Israel in the kingdom of god, which was coming soon. So how could he also teach that Israel was soon going to be destroyed? That would be a schizophrenic set of teachings. Which is (just one of many reasons) that it is extremely unlikely that Jesus actually predicted the destruction of the temple, that those words were put in his mouth by a later generation who were dealing with a different set of circumstances. How to deal with the fact that not only did the kingdom not come, but the sacred temple was destroyed?

I come back a lot to Acts 1. If Jesus told his disciples that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed, why was the first thing they ask when they saw the resurrected Jesus, "when will the kingdom be restored?" And if they did, why didn't he respond, "I told you just this week about the destruction of the temple, how could you forget such a huge thing so quickly?"

When Jesus was on trial and allegedly accused of predicting the destruction of the temple, why didn't he say, "yup, you guys are doomed unless you believe in me as messiah?"


Jesus taught that God would rule via Israel in the kingdom of god, which was coming soon. So how could he also teach that Israel was soon going to be destroyed? That would be a schizophrenic set of teachings.

Paul, ‘schizophrenic’ is an interesting word to use. When Jesus offers Israel a choice between a broad path leading to destruction and a narrow path leading to life (language reminiscent of Jer. 21:8-10) or between building a house (or temple?) on sand that gets washed away in flood and storm and building on the reliable word of a true prophet (language reminiscent of Ezek. 13:8-16), isn’t he saying that there are two sides to this whole kingdom of God thing? In fact, it seems to be his point that precisely because the many of Israel are on a broad path leading to destruction that a few are chosen to pursue a narrow path leading to life.

This may complicate things from our perspective, but the whole point of the argument is that the sermon on the mount was addressed to a people whose perspective was very different.

Remember that the announcement of the kingdom of God was accompanied by a call to repentance. What do you imagine John was talking about when he made this statement, which incidentally Jesus alludes to in Acts 1:4-5?

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

More importantly, when the disciples receive the Spirit, Peter interprets the experience in light of Joel’s vivid prophecy of judgment on israel, which strongly suggests that the disciples will continue Jesus prophetic ministry precisely by warning Jerusalem that the nation faces a day of reckoning. The Spirit is poured out on the group indiscriminately, but the vision they will have is one of devastating judgment, from which only those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved:

And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:19-21).

Jim Hoag | Thu, 10/28/2010 - 13:49 | Permalink

Andrew, thanks. It's interesting, half way through this post I pulled away to scribble down some thoughts before they got away from me. Rarely happens. Turns out those midway thoughts were actually fairly congruent with your conclusions. One thing I jotted down was that there’s a distinction between transposition, superimposition and contextualization. The last two alter/bend/institute something from the N.T. past in order for it to "fit" and be “applied” to the post eschatological present. Transposition on the other hand is a conceptual link which, as you said, does "what the prophetic imagination has always done—find intertextual congruence, loosely and creatively retelling old narratives in order to make sense of new circumstances". A conceptual link combines with new circumstances in a way that ignites theological imagination to bring about new, creative forms of life. In the movie “Social Network” (having to do with the origins of Facebook) there’s this one unforgettable dialog between its founders, “You don’t want to ruin it (Facebook) with ads, ads are no longer cool. We don’t even know what the thing is yet. How big it can get, how far it can go”. That which is from the past, superimposed on the present, will prevent whatever it is we are to be from emerging in the future. By the way, the diagram was very helpful. 

@Jim Hoag:

Thanks, Jim. Helpful comments. Can’t wait to see the film!

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew, DO see "Social Network". The film (without giving too much away) is, I think, almost an “Easy Rider” generational revelation (oh wait, maybe you're too young for Easy Rider). There might be some hyperbole in that description but the movie was kind of a window into a cosmic, creative, cultural shift… the genesis of one of the 21st century’s most divisive, DYNAMIC and (maybe) most important events so far. 

Many Christians say it was about greed and the narcissism that goes along with success… I’m not disputing that. But I saw something else; the (almost) prophetic, unbridled vision that has ingrained itself into this current generation. 

Now, to see this kind of imagination, creativity, innovation, improvisation (sanctified…Spirit driven) in the CHURCH! It's a prophetic function, and it calls for a collective imagination that will embrace theological renewal; dramatizing, publicizing, and amplifying the story of a God who makes all things new. OK, I got carried away...see the film when you get a chance; I'm interested in your thoughts, even if they find mine lacking.