“Let both grow together until the harvest”: The Kingdom Parables and the Fallacy of Exclusion

“It is not possible for man to sever the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the other frie; that must be the Angels Ministery at the end of mortall things.”—John Milton, Aeroipagetica

The Kingdom of God is the ultimate ineffable concept: a kind of society that has never existed before and that contradicts every established theory of social or political development. Even its name, “kingdom,” implies a human domination structure that is completely alien to the thing described. To inspire his followers with the possibilities of this society, Jesus must first find ways to describe something for which his audience has no point of reference. This is the central narrative problem of the New Testament: how to eff the ineffable.

The solution to this problem comes in the form of the “Kingdom Parables,” a subset of New Testament parables designed to illustrate some element of the Kingdom. The thirteenth chapter of Matthew is the mother lode of Kingdom Parables. In this one chapter, Jesus gives eight parables, fully interprets two of them, and explains the reasons that he speaks in parables in the first place.

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Knocking at the Door

“CHRISTIANA began to knock . . . she knocked and knocked again. But instead of any that answered, they all thought that they heard as if a dog came barking upon them. A dog, and a great one too; and this made the women and children afraid. Nor durst they for awhile to knock any more, for fear the mastiff should fly upon them. . . . . Knock they durst not, for fear of the dog; go back they durst not, for fear that the keeper of that gate should espy them as they so went, and should be offended with them. At last they thought of knocking again, and knocked more vehemently than they did at the first. Then said the keeper of the gate, “Who is there? —John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part II

Even by the standards of 1678, the first volume of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is hostile to women. When the hero, Christian, discovers that he is among the elect, he turns his back on his wife and sets out to find salvation on his own. Though The Pilgrim’s Progress went on to become the bestselling book of the century (and of the next two centuries after that), readers expressed great dismay over the fate of Christian’s wife.

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“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”

In the ninth chapter of Matthew, Jesus seems to have gotten really fed up with people asking him why he eats with publicans and sinners. Here’s how we can tell. After he gives his standard answer to the question, he gives the guys who asked it a reading assignment:

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matt 9:10-13, KJV)

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A Hospital, Not a Museum

“A church is not a museum for the saints—it is a hospital for sinners.”
― Abigail Van Buren

Much of America’s national theology in the 20th century came from syndicated advice columns, including the sentence quoted above. Though the phrase has been attributed to Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom, and many others, its first recorded use actually occurred in a 1964 column by Dear Abby A couple calling themselves only “Sinners” wrote Abby to say that they had been living together without the benefit of clergy for 25 years and did not feel worthy to go to church. “The very fact that you are troubled by the way you have been living proves that you are worthy,” Abby wrote. “A church is not a museum for the saints—it is a hospital for sinners.”

It would not have been out of place coming from Augustine or Chrysostom, though, because the sentiment (factoring out the modern origins of both hospitals and museums) comes directly from Jesus. When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, they (quite logically) asked his disciples, “why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard them and said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:11-12, NRSV).

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Jesus Was a Funny Guy: The Laughing God of the Sermon on the Mount

For my money, the best joke in the New Testament is the one about the camel going through the eye of the needle (Matt 19:24). This is not a slam dunk. The bit about forgiving your brother 70 x 7 times is real hoot too (Matt 18:22), as is John the Baptist’s bit about God making children of Abraham out of rocks (Matt 3:9). But the camel through the eye of the needle joke gets all five stars. It is a first rate joke.

Here’s how you can tell that it is a good joke; for 2000 years, serious Christians with limited senses of humor have been making themselves look ridiculous by not getting it and trying to explain it away as a serious statement

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Salt and Light: Jesus on the Burdens of Chosenness

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
—Matthew 13:13-16

The first thing we must grapple with in interpreting the “salt and light” passage from the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus does not speak in the form of a command. He does not say, “be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” He does not even make it a suggestion, like, “it would be really cool if you guys could be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” There is nothing in the grammar to suggest that he is instructing us to be salt or light at all.

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Greater Love Hath No Man: A Review

Click here for Eric Huntsman’s translations of New Testament passages created specifically for readers of this book.


Latter-day Saints have always been allergic to liturgy. This allergy has nothing to do with doctrine or even church policy. It is just our inheritance from the pragmatic Yankee Puritans and low-church English immigrants who first converted to Mormonism and created our worship patterns. For these Christians, there were very few things more important than not looking too much like Catholics.

Without any liturgical tradition, however, Latter-day Saints find themselves separated from much of the Christian world at times like the Advent season and Holy Week—the extended periods of devotion and reflection that surround the holidays of Christmas and Easter. We often lack knowledge about basic things that most Christians take for granted And we deprive ourselves of both the structure and the opportunities for reflection that come with a regular liturgical calendar. [Read more…]

Tacitus, Plutarch, and Truth: Thoughts on the Gospels and Genre

In yesterday’s post, I said that it simply didn’t matter whether or not John’s story about Jesus turning water to wine actually occurred because historical fact is not the kind of truth that John was telling. I also suggested that nobody in John’s day would have considered the question important because biography and documented history were not genres that people in the ancient world understood. These, of course, seem like the kind of flippant and faithless statement that academics are always making in order to tear down people’s faith. Like Korihor. Since that is actually not what I was trying to do, I wanted to do a follow-up.

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Faith as Trust: Reading John 3:16 before the Enlightenment

And just as Mōüsēs lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the son of mankind be lifted up, so that whoever trusts in him can have life for all time. This is in fact how much god loved the world: he gave the only son born to him, so that everyone who trusted in him wouldn’t be annihilated, but would have life for all time.God, you see, didn’t send the son into the world to judge the world, but so the world could be rescued through him. Whoever trusts him isn’t judged; but whoever doesn’t trust in him has been judged already, because he didn’t trust in the name of the only son born to god.—John 3:14-19 in The Gospels, a New Translation by Sarah Ruden

This year, I have been thoroughly enjoying the New Testament in a new translation by scholar and classicist Sarah Ruden. Almost everything about the translation makes me uncomfortable. The language is sparse and strange, and the translation uses unfamiliar names for people we are all familiar with, like Loukus, Iōannēs, and Iēsous instead of Luke, John, and Jesus. This all makes it seem like the New Testament is a work from a foreign culture whose values, beliefs, and core assumptions about the world are fundamentally different from ours in ways that we don’t entirely understand.

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Christ as a Reader of Scripture: A View of the Temptation Scenes in Matthew and Luke

“Victory and triumph to the Son of God,
Now entering his great duel, not of arms,
But to vanquish by wisdom hellish wiles!”
—John Milton, Paradise Regained

Milton turned a lot of heads in Paradise Regained by setting Christ’s victory over Satan in the Wilderness Temptation scene, rather than the places that most of his contemporaries placed it; the Virgin Birth, the struggle in Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection. But Milton had a method to his madness. For the author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the battle between Jesus Christ and the devil was a battle of interpretation. Both knew the scriptures well, and both had the ability to incorporate them into their own narratives. As Milton sets it up, the victory must go to the better reader.

This is not quite what Matthew and Luke are doing in their versions of the Temptation scene, but it is also not quite NOT what they are doing. Especially Matthew, who is the most scripturally knowledgeable of all the gospel writers and whose audience had the most interest in understanding how Jesus related to the Hebrew scriptures. Matthew’s version of the Temptation might reasonably be described—though not with anything like Milton’s scope—as a competition between Jesus and Satan to determine the best reader of the Bible.

Here’s what I mean.

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Splendour in the Brown Grass: Some thoughts on Getting Older with Poetry

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death.
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

—William Wordsworth: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality

Unlike his fellow great Romantic poets—John Keats, Percy Shelly, and George Gordon, Lord Byron—William Wordsworth did not have the good fortune to die young and tragically. While his peers blazed like meteors and consumed themselves in their brilliant flames, Wordsworth had to figure out how to grow old.

Did I mention that he was 33 years old? Yeah, Romantic poetry has always been a young person’s game.

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The Women of Matthew 1

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. (Matthew 1:2-6)

Readers of the Old Testament learn very quickly that, as soon as the “begats” start, it is OK to start skimming. The elaborate genealogies mean very little to us today, however important they may have been to the Bronze Age tribal cultures that produced the Old Testament.

Matthew, however, has some tricks up his sleeve that we are going to miss if we don’t pay close attention to the list of who begat whom. Specifically, we will miss the significance of the four women who appear in the 42 generations listed from Abraham to Jesus. These women are: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah), each of whom had a prominent role in the Hebrew scriptures that Matthew is consciously choosing to map his own work onto.

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“I can see people, but they look like trees”: Insight and Humility in the Gospel of Mark

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?”And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again, and he looked intently, and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
                                                —Mark 8:22-26 (NRSV)

The story of Jesus healing the blind man in Bethesda is, in at least one way, the most remarkable of the New Testament’s miracle stories: it is the only time that Jesus needs two tries to get it right. The first time is only half a miracle. The man can see people, but they look like trees. He sees, but badly.

This is one of the very few stories that appear only in Mark’s Gospel—90% of which occurs in either Matthew or Luke (or both), who had access to Mark when they wrote their own versions. The fact that the later evangelists left this bit on the cutting room floor suggests that even they felt uncomfortable portraying Jesus as someone unable to heal somebody on the first try.

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Now Let Your Servant Depart in Peace: Simeon’s Song in the Advent Tradition

Nunc Dimittis or Asunto místico by Fiovanni Bellini (1505-1510) 

The world’s first Christmas carols can be found in the Book of Luke. The three major canticles—Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Zachariah’s Benedictus (1:67-79), and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32)—are among the first Christian praise songs that we know anything about. They are much more than Luke’s attempt to reconstruct dialogue that he was not around for. They represent the powerful thoughts and feelings that the very first Christians had while contemplating the central event of their new religion.

I have written before about the Magnificat, perhaps the best-known of these canticles. Today, though, I want to focus on the third of the three, the Nunc Dimittis (“Now you let depart”), or the Canticle of Simeon.

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Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”: An Advent Sermon on Love

“The Christian doctrine shows man that the essence of his soul is love—that his happiness depends not on loving this or that object, but on loving the principle of the whole—God, whom he recognizes within himself as love, and therefore he loves all things and all men.”

― Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

We begin not with a poem, as is so often my wont, but with one of the most striking and beautiful pieces of prose that I have ever read. Leo Tolstoy’s 1895 “Master and Man” is usually classified as a short story, but, like most things by Tolstoy, it is very long. One could be forgiven for calling it a novella. And if you plan to read it (and you should definitely plan to read it), you should exit now and read it before coming back. There will be spoilers.

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The Joy of the Saints: An Advent Sermon (3rd Week)

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Ne 2:22-23; 25)

First, we must draw a sharp distinction between happiness and joy. We can see the difference in the words themselves. Happiness comes from the Middle-English root word hap which means “chance” or “fortune.” The same root can be found in words like “happen,” “hapless,” and “happenstance.” Happiness is the feeling we get when good things happen to us, and the feeling depends entirely on the situation. When the things that cause happiness go away, so does the feeling they produce. When Solon tells Croesus, “Call no one happy until they are dead,” he means that, as long as a person remains alive, their fortunes could always change.

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Peace Is Not a Verb: An Advent Sermon (2)

Peace is not a verb. One cannot go through the street “peacing”—not even during Advent. One might, in a very limited sense, use “peace” as a verb by appending to it the words “out” and “dude” in quick succession. But only if one drives a VW bus and wears love beads. For the rest of us, peace cannot be an action word, nor do we have good one-word alternatives to replace the unwieldy infinitive “to make peace.”

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The Risk of Hope: An Advent Sermon

“I am a Christian by Yearning. Opposed to my doubt and perversity is a longing that the gospel be true. Christians are made, said the apostle Paul, of faith, hope, and charity. Though I have little charity and less faith, perhaps I have hope in some abundance.”—Levi Peterson, “A Christian by Yearning”

Hope is hard; let’s not pretend otherwise. And it is risky. Things with feathers are also things with talons, and those who hope make themselves vulnerable to despair. When we embrace hope, we take the same risks we take when we embrace another person: we might be rejected, we might be disappointed, and we might find that we have misplaced our hope in something unworthy of our attention. “Embrace is grace,” writes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, “and grace is a gamble, always.”

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Not Your Parents’ Apostasy and Restoration: A Review of Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints

Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, eds. Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Cathrine Gines Taylor, and Kristian S. Heal. Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2022. $49.95 (hardcover), $9.95 (Kindle)

Launching this week, just in time for the savvy Christmas shopper, is the Maxwell Institute’s first word on the 2023 Come Follow Me curriculum, in which Latter-day Saints will venture forth on their quadrennial adventure with the New Testament. This volume focuses, not on the people who wrote the New Testament, but on its readers and devotees in the two hundred years or so that followed.

Right off the bat, the editors make it clear that they are not going to encourage, or even tolerate, the standard LDS view of early Christianity—the one where those silly Christians broke away from the truth after the apostles died and permitted Greek philosophy and Roman culture to permeate the plain and precious doctrines of Jesus Christ and turn His true church into something Great, Abominable, and of the Devil

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Introducing Rachel Rueckert’s East Winds—It’s Great!

BCC Press is proud to introduce one of the most remarkable books we have ever seen, much less published. East Winds, by Rachel Rueckert—a memoir, a travel narrative, a cultural tour-de-force, a love story, and a profound meditation on the core meaning of concepts like marriage, commitment, and eternity. And that’s just in Chapter One. This book will knock your socks off (if you wear socks, which you definitely should, especially in November, because it’s getting cold).

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Value and Giving Things Up: Some Thoughts on Volleyball, Muskets, Clergy Confidentiality, Costly Signaling, and, of course, BYU

I believe—really, really believe—that the BYU Athletics Office spoke for the University and the entire Church when it said, in response a recent incident at a volleyball match, that “All of God’s children deserve love and respect, and BYU Athletics is completely committed to leading out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice of any kind and rooting out racism.”

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A Few Minor, and Hopefully Helpful Editing Suggestions on the LDS Church’s Recent Statement about Abuse

Church Offers Statement on Help Line and Abuse

The abuse of a child or any other individual is inexcusable. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands with the victims and survivors of abuse and desires to use its resources to prevent abuse and to protect those who experience it. The Church must never be used as a screen to hide abusers from the consequences of their actions.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes this, teaches this, and dedicates tremendous resources and efforts to prevent, report and address abuse. Our hearts break for these children and all victims of abuse.

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Asking the Right Questions: Four Theses on Framing the Abortion Debate

Texts are tricky things, whether they are scriptural, historical, literary, or constitutional. People who claim to be “textualists,” or even (in constitutional circles) “originalists” often hide behind the rhetorical value of being such a thing without acknowledging the actual difficulty of doing it. Texts are not self-interpreting units of meaning that will yield their secrets with no effort, but only to the pure in heart. 

Textual interpretation is a process of asking certain, well-defined questions and then trying to answer them from the words on a page. It has always been more art than science, and the value of the answers ultimately depends on the quality of the questions. The process of asking questions of a text is sometimes called “framing.” The way we frame a textual question controls the kind of answer we get, because it determines the kinds of things we look for. 

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Sunday Sermon: On Faith and Being Enough

And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Matthew 14:29-31)

There are two ways to look at Peter’s nautical adventures in the fourteenth chapter of Matthew.

We can look at the failure. Peter is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk on water, and he blows it. Christ stretches out His hand and assures Peter that it is going to be OK, and, after a few hesitant steps, Peter stops believing and starts thinking. He trusts his own reason and concludes that walking on water is impossible, so he begins to doubt Christ’s ability to sustain him. When he loses his faith, he sinks, fully earning the rebuke, “O thou of little faith” (33).

But we can read the same scene as a triumph and a miracle. While all of the other apostles huddle in the safety of the boat (a dubious safety because of the storm they are experiencing), Peter asks Christ to call him forth. And then Peter actually walks on water, becoming only the second person in the history of humanity to overcome the straightforward laws of physics.

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Review: Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor, by Matthew Wickman

There is an ironic, even impish innocence to earth, an endless provocation to the human impulse towards wonder that provides no recourse for satisfying that impulse. Humans, then, live at odds with nature, forever, seeking to graft meaning, purpose onto a branch that cannot support the weight of our need. To live is to want to understand, but to seek understanding is to look past the wordless bounties of living.

—Matthew Wickman, Life to the Whole Being, p. 101

To the extent that we can believe Aristotle about such things, the Ancient Greeks had a single word to represent the entire purpose of philosophy and all other human endeavors. This word, eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), describes the highest good of human life. The word literally means good ( ) spirit or minor deity (daímōn). In English texts, this word has been translated as “happiness,” “virtue,” “welfare,” “thriving,” and, my personal favorite, “human flourishing.”

For Aristotle, a eudemonic life is one that has all of the elements of flourishing—intellectual fulfillment, physical health, satisfying relationships, material prosperity, and spiritual understanding—in exactly the right proportions needed for a person to thrive. Though Matthew Wickman does not use the word in his remarkable new memoir Life to the Whole Being—a phrase that Parley P. Pratt used to explain the gift of the Holy Ghost—a key objective of the book is to describe a spiritual ideal of eudaimonia. In fact, “life to the whole being” would be a reasonably good translation of eudemonia, should the author ever want to take up his hand at translating, or even paraphrasing, the Nicomachean Ethics.

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No Words

I don’t have any more words. I used them all up.

I used to believe that my country was capable of solving problems big problems by having big discussions. As I read over posts that I have written over the last ten years, I can’t help but pity the naivete of someone who once thought that reasoned discourse mattered. Here are the last ten things that I tried to say:

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The Desert of Faith

It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on. If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self.—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Somehow, I managed to make it through both an awkward teenage phase and a college wanna-be-intellectual phase without reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I read all the other required books: The Lord of the Rings, Stranger in a Strange Land, Slaughterhouse-Five, Siddhartha. And I owned Dune–all three of the original trilogy. I displayed them proudly, and never got past a few pages. I knew it was about sand.

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Movie Messiahs, Eschatological Events, and a Thesis on the Philosophy of History

Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.
                                                —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

I have been impressed recently by how much of our culture’s touchstone literature operates from a messianic view of history. And I am not talking about explicitly religious texts like the Bible and the Qur’an. Nearly all of the great mythic sagas of our time—think about Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dune, Percy Jackson, and hundreds more—reproduce a basic trope of messianic salvation borrowed from the Abrahamic religions. 

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Sunday Sermon: The Kingdom of God Is Within You (Some Assembly Required)

The difference between the Christian doctrine and those which preceded it is that the social doctrine said: “Live in opposition to your nature [understanding by this only the animal nature], make it subject to the external law of family, society, and state.” Christianity says: “Live according to your nature [understanding by this the divine nature]; do not make it subject to anything—neither you (an animal self) nor that of others—and you will attain the very aim to which you are striving when you subject your external self.”

—Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

There is a vigorous debate among New Testament scholars about what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God.” Unlike most debates within the rarefied realms of academia, this one is actually fairly important, at least for Christians, because the different sides represent two very different ways of being Christian in the world.

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The Hope of Easter

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

The central message of Easter is hope—hope that death is not the end of us, hope that our separation from God is not permanent, hope that a human being is more than just a random collection of subatomic particles that can do a little math. Doubt and fear seem to inhere in the human condition because we can only inhabit the middle of our own stories. We weren’t here for the beginning, we can’t see clearly to the end, and almost everything about the parts that we can see seems calculated to increase our anxiety, our depression, and our despair.

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