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On Christian Fiction and Covenant

On Christian Fiction and Covenant

In the early days of my company, Energion Publications, I tried to post some reflections immediately after each new book release. Things have gotten much busier, and I’m behind, but I still hope to publish reflections. Perhaps if I’m diligent, I can catch up! I want to make clear that this isn’t a review, nor is it an official statement of my company. I don’t have anyone review or even proofread these notes. This may not (and in this case will not) be entirely about one book. It just contains my personal reflections on helping to bring a new book to the public.

Before I look at the specific book, I want to say a few things about Christian fiction. There has been some debate about just what constitutes Christian fiction. Is it fiction that has a Christian theme? Does it include books that have (identifiable) Christians as characters? Does it have proclamation of the gospel as its central goal?

I’m not too concerned with settling the debate. I doubt people will all come to agree. But here’s how I see it, and how I tend to divide Christian-related fiction.

First, there are books that involve Christians in an identifiable way. They go to church (or not). They pray. They talk about their faith and how it relates to events. If the story is not portraying an explicitly Christian theme, I simply call this fiction. I’d like to see people of other faiths and of no faith at all portrayed as who they are in any novel. Just as we expect a good novelist to understand how various characters think and feel based on other factors, such as political views, family, culture, and psychology, we should expect a character to be portrayed accurately in terms of religious views and spirituality. A novel set in modern America should almost always have someone in it who is a person of faith, and just having a Christian in the book does not make it a Christian novel, any more than having a Muslim in it would make it a Muslim novel.

But now let’s use the last example to bring us to the next category. A novel set in a Muslim community, in which characters attend prayers on Friday, fast during Ramadan, and search for answers from the Qur’an might well be a Muslim novel. But if the theme instead is one of a Muslim character who convinces a Christian to convert to Islam, that would certainly be a Muslim novel.

Now just reverse the names of the religions. Many Christian novels have as a plot, or at least a subplot, the conversion of one of the characters. One form of this kind of novel is a Christian romance that does not involve Christians getting romantically involved, but rather has one lead character (most frequently the female lead) fall in love with the other (generally the male lead), even though he is not of her faith. Over the course of the novel the one is converted so that they can both be saved and live happily ever after, including going to heaven when they die. (Please don’t send me one of these. There are enough of them already.)

Then there are works of fiction that portray a particular Christian theme. Our first fiction publication, Megabelt, is such a book. It portrays life in the large Christian churches of the Bible belt (mega=megachurch, belt=Bible belt). It is Christian themed and discusses Christian life. It even tends to push readers to try to get out of their “Christian” cultural ruts. At the same time, I know there are non-Christian readers who have enjoyed it. At the other extreme of this category (in our catalog) is Prayer Trilogy. By its title you can tell it has a religious theme. But it is not a book about converting people (though it does talk redemption). Rather, it portrays Christians who pray and try to live out their faith. You could enjoy this even if you saw coincidence (and just plain good people) where the author sees providence.

As you can tell, I think the boundaries aren’t clear. For example, how would one view the works of Andrew Greeley? I’ve said before that he preaches the gospel in writing. Many conservative protestants will miss this, because there is an overt theme of sex, but he still gets God involved and even draws out the love of God as portrayed through human passion (Song of Songs anyone?). I know many non-Christian readers enjoy Greeley’s novels. So the boundaries are not absolutely clear.

Covenant - the NovelSo let’s get to Covenant, the recent novel released by my company. It’s author, Daniel Martin, has written a definitely Christian novel. I think wherever you stand on the various definitions, this one is going to be labeled “Christian.” Its author wouldn’t want it any other way. If there was any chance you’d miss it, you might be clued in by the large angel on the front cover.

Covenant isn’t going to convert anyone to Christianity. I take the time to say this, because people make this mistake frequently. Our books don’t convert people. We don’t convert people. Conversion is between God and the individual. It’s an act of the Holy Spirit, not of humans. What we can do, and what Covenant does, is bear witness. It’s a testimony in fictional form of someone who has been in the trenches, who knows Jesus Christ, and who has chosen this form to tell the story. I don’t mean here that it’s autobiographical, except in the sense that it’s a biography of every Christian. “It’s by grace you’re saved, through faith. And that’s not something you did yourself. It’s God’s gift” (Eph. 2:8)!

There are going to be challenging moments for people of various theological views. People in the mainline churches, for example, don’t like to talk about angels and demons (especially angels in this case) being quite this active. Redemption comes as God works through people and by sending angels. Spiritual warfare is very active and critical. If there weren’t challenging points, I would never have published the book. Sometimes a novel is a good way to encounter some of these things. Just what do you believe? Have you thought about it? Have you studied it?

While I say this isn’t autobiographical, I recall remarking as I was reading the manuscript for the first time that it was clearly written by someone who had been in the trenches. The author knows how to describe the down and out, he knows how to describe trouble, and he also knows how to describe redemption. And yes, he even knows how to describe the struggles that go through redemption. Don’t look for any quick and obvious miracles to derail the plot. The angels are there, but they’re generally pushing (and helping) the people to find their way and do the things they are called to do. That is when they aren’t riding motorcycles or sliding down the noses of statuary. But you’ll have to read the book to find out about that.

You don’t find a lot of preaching in the book. What you find is people acting and living. There is a sermon here, but it’s in the story. It merits the title Christian fiction. I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s witness may even be the means by which God speaks to you.

 

Interactive Covenants and Prophecies or God Has a Plan B

Interactive Covenants and Prophecies or God Has a Plan B

It’s interesting to me how we (and I definitely include myself) often read scripture. One concept can easily override another. For example, I recall a conversation in which someone was claiming that no human being was ever righteous. I brought up Job, who is described as righteous in Job 1. “Oh, but that is only as he was seen through the righteousness of Christ,” I was told. Of course, Job 1 isn’t speaking of the righteousness of Christ, and in fact the entire book would be very silly with that change. Job is concerned that he has been punished, but that nothing he has done deserves these results.

This post is a follow-up to Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last, and you should read that post first.

It’s funny that I begin this post with an illustration from Job, because Job provides a counterpoint to the theology I’m looking at. Jeremiah 18, which I cited in the previous post, talks about how if God is sending disaster, and the recipients of the disaster repent, God will repent of that disaster. One implication that might be drawn is that good deeds result in blessing, and bad deeds result in curses. One need look no further than Deuteronomy 28 to find this theology made explicit, and it is repeatedly hammered in through the various books of the Deuteronomic history.

But what I’m more interested in here is the interactive nature of the texts, the way in which people’s actions are woven in with God’s will with the implication that you can change the future. Even if God has said things will go one way, that might be changed through human action.

In theology we tend to reconcile the differences in some way. God might only appear to react to the actions of humans, but he actually knows precisely what is coming and he does precisely what he planned. It may be considered blasphemous to suggest otherwise. But open theism and process theology both suggest that God is more interactive than traditional theology holds, though to different degrees and in different ways.

My interest here is in the way we read the biblical text, and the way that we understand prophecy and its fulfilment. I’ll get to the covenants shortly.

Imagine a father who tells his children that he will take them all to the movies in the evening. Now think about the father’s mental processes. Did he suddenly realize that in the fixed future he would have taken his children to the movies, and thus he informed them of this information he had received (or divined, perhaps)? Or did he decide at this moment that he wanted to take his children to the movies, and that he would, in fact, do so this very evening?

Given that this human father does not know the future, such as to see himself taking future action, we’ll have to assume the latter. He makes a decision in the present, and he announces it to his children by saying, “I’m going to take you to the movies.” At the point at which he makes that statement it’s true. Being an optimistic sort, this particular father doesn’t think of all the possible reasons he might not make it or might change his mind. He just says he’s going.

Let’s imagine now that the children, having heard of their good fortune, decide that nothing else matters. They fail to do their chores. They ignore their mother. The fail to put away their toys. They say unfortunate things. In fact, they generally make life miserable for their parents.

Now the father says, “Because you have been misbehaving, we are not going to the movies any more.” Does this make his earlier statement a lie? It was true (at least in intent) when he said it, but it does not actually take place.

My suggestion is that prophecies are more like this father’s statement than they are like scenes which one might see in a crystal ball. (If crystal balls worked, which they don’t!) When God says “Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days,” he doesn’t mean that he has observed the future and seen that this happens, but rather that he intends, in 40 days, to destroy Nineveh. That’s clearly the way the Ninevites understand it. It’s the way Jonah is afraid it’s going to work.

I’m not certain how much difference there is between these two ways of thinking when it is God making the promises or predictions. It makes a great deal of difference in the way we think about what God has to say.

Now we come to covenant, and I’d like to call our attention to Jeremiah 31:31-34:

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (NRSV)

(Note: I would use “lawful lord” rather than “husband” in this passage, but that gets beyond the scope of this blog post.)

There are a few things to notice about this passage. First, the covenant came with promises (or are they predictions?). Does this make a difference? There are conditions. It is by violating these conditions that the covenant is broken. Once broken, the covenant is not in effect.

Then comes the unheard of grace—a new covenant. It’s not a restoration of an old covenant. That one has been broken, and as we learned in Psalm 89, no matter what we do we cannot make the promises “have been” fulfilled, because they weren’t. David’s throne was removed. There was no one sitting on it. No amount of restoration years later can make what did not happen happen. Instead, there’s a new covenant. God is now on plan B, unless it’s plan C or D and we didn’t realize it. But at least it’s not plan A.

And this is where Christians can go off the rail, especially considering how much this passage is used in the book of Hebrews. The easy Christian solution is to assume that the new covenant that God created is a covenant with the church. And I believe that God does indeed have a new covenant with the church.

But having a covenant with his people the church does not really fulfil the words of Jeremiah 31:31-34, because there he says that a day is coming when he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. That precludes one set of ideas, specifically that the church replaces Israel, and that Israel as such is no longer a player.

But on the other hand we have the view that everything said in the old covenant, the one that was broken, must still be fulfilled. That is not, in my view, scripturally justified. In fact, that is to make the same mistake as those Jeremiah mentioned (7:1-20) who kept repeating: “The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” God calls attention immediately to Shiloh which had once been the seat of God’s tabernacle, but which had not done so well.

So it’s now plan B, or perhaps plan C. (Shiloh?) How do we know the form that God’s blessing will take? Perhaps no eye has seen it nor any ear heard it, nor has it entered into any human heart (1 Cor. 2:9).

Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last

Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last

This week’s lectionary (RCL) texts for this week (Proper B11) form an interesting set, complete with the occasional weird cut-off for the scripture. For example, 2 Samuel 7:1-14a chops off the last part of Nathan’s message to David, the part about both the eternal covenant and the potential for God’s discipline. As I read this, I was thinking that they didn’t want to go into that “eternal covenant” territory.

(Note that for this post I am reading the Old Testament as a Christian and I am not making use of Jewish interpretation. I use “Old Testament” when referring to the Hebrew scriptures as a part of the Christian Bible. I use “Hebrew scriptures” to refer to them as a literary collection or as the Jewish Bible.)

But then we have Psalm 89:20-37. Here they have all the stuff about the eternal covenant, but they don’t go on to deal with the most important topic of the Psalm. Verse 38 (not part of the reading) begins:

But you have spurned and rejected him;
you are angry with your chosen king.
You have repudiated your covenant with your servant;
you have thrown his crown to the ground (38-39 NET).

If you continue reading you get a scene that sounds very much like the Babylonian exile or thereafter, though there might be a couple of other dates that would fit in. In fact, the author of this Psalm is addressing God specifically because he doesn’t see the eternal covenant being fulfilled. Rather, at this point it is impossible for that covenant to be fulfilled as originally written because it called for a descendant of David to be on the throne “forever” and “forever” is not to be interrupted. Unfortunately “forever” has been interrupted.

Now there are a number of Christian workarounds for this issue, and most readers likely will have one so readily to mind that they may never have noticed the problem in the first place. We get so used to an imposed or traditional interpretation that we actually hear the interpretation when we think we’re reading the text.

Many of our common answers involve what I call in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method “text trimming.” Using this method we trim a text down to size so we can claim either that we obey the command or that a promise or prediction has been fulfilled. In this case a common interpretation for this eternal covenant is that Jesus is of the lineage of David, and either is now sitting on David’s throne (conveniently, if figuratively, transported to heaven), or that at a future date Jesus will sit on David’s throne, thus fulfilling the terms of the covenant.

But somebody future sitting on David’s throne again, or someone sitting on a throne somewhere else doesn’t fulfill the terms of the covenant as expressed here. In fact, these terms cannot and will not be fulfilled because they have already been overcome by events–specifically there was and is a time when no son of David has been sitting on the throne of Israel. To make this seem like a fulfillment, we must make the covenant itself say less than it actually says.

If we transport ourselves briefly to a time when the door was still open, but this very issue was front and center, we may see some of the difficulties. I refer to the time when Jerusalem was under its final siege prior to the 586 BCE fall of Jerusalem. There we have some people saying that the city cannot fall because it is, after all, the location of God’s house, and God has promised that there will be a descendant of David on the throne.

Jeremiah has to argue that there is no safety here. The city can fall. The king can be removed. The temple can be destroyed. He makes an extended argument to this effect in Jeremiah 18, which is sometimes quoted to support God’s sovereignty. “Yes, indeed! God can do whatever he wants!” But that is not the intent at all.

There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it (Jeremiah 18:7-10 NET).

I recommend reading the entire chapter. The message here is not so much God’s sovereignty, though that is a fundamental assumption of the chapter. Rather, it is that God responds to our actions. Eternal blessings involve responsibilities. You can reverse the blessing, but the good news is that you can also reverse the punishment.

The book of Jonah illustrates this point in narrative form. Jonah assumes the type of theology that Jeremiah states explicitly. Jonah is actually afraid that God will be merciful and won’t fulfill the promise, yet the story does not include any notion that Jonah preached a possibility of repentance. He hoped the Ninevites would not repent. He was annoyed when they weren’t destroyed. (Again, read the whole book! It’s only four chapters.)

So what do we do with eternal promises that don’t happen precisely as predicted?

First, Psalm 89 itself makes it clear that any variation here doesn’t involve abandoning Israel. Canonizing this as part of Christian scripture (or accepting it as canonical) indicates that we believe God is in action in Psalm 89, after the king has been removed. God is still active with his people Israel. We acknowledge through this act that Israel is not abandoned, even if we don’t always remember that we did.

Second, we have another explicit statement of God’s approach in Jeremiah, this time in chapter 31:31-34. (Again, if you are not well acquainted with this passage, shame on you, go read it!) This is the famous passage used extensively in the book of Hebrews. I am reading it in Jeremiah’s context (to the best of my ability), however, and what I want to note is that the new covenant made is not with someone else, but with the house of Israel.

There is an argument that God transfers his promises from Israel (Israel is said to have failed) to either the church or in some cases to another nation. There are those who think the United States has become God’s chosen people in some way. But a sudden transfer of the promises from Israel to the church is not a good option, because the new covenant is made with Israel.

I base my interpretation here heavily on Jeremiah, even though I started with Psalm 89, because Jeremiah is the guy who had to deal with this issue when it was live. He had to proclaim his view of the covenant and the results of violating it in the face of torture and death, not sitting comfortably in front of his computer screen or in a church office somewhere.

At the same time, if we as Christians are to understand this as God’s will, and ourselves as part of God’s will, we will have to see some way in which we become connected. Thus we “trim the text” in some ways, allowing modification, but it’s a modification that is, I think, well supported. Jeremiah maintains there is a new covenant. Even the old covenant called for Israel to bless the entire world.

Paul makes his argument in Romans 9-11, which is again less concerned with God’s sovereignty, though that is again a fundamental assumption of the passage, but rather with how God deals with Israel. Like a parent, God doesn’t say, “I think I’ll put aside this one son in favor of someone else.” Rather, he looks to extend his blessing. Thus we gentiles are grafted in and receive some of God’s blessing. (It would be interesting to spend some time on Paul’s use of scripture in Romans 9-11. He does some interesting things!)

It’s easy here to imagine that the Jews must somehow be blessed less. It’s hard for us to understand that God’s love and his blessings are not a limited commodity. When I became a step-parent I was careful never to suggest that my step-children should love their birth father less. I loved them as my own, but I knew the love was shared, yet I felt no loss. Love isn’t a limited commodity either. And we, limited as we are, can add more people into our circle of love. So can God.

But even here we can make a mistake. We often see “chosen-ness” as being chosen to receive blessings, to be the best loved favorite. But God tends to choose people to do things. Jeremiah was chosen, just as Israel was chosen. It was a different time and place and different purpose (though not as different as it might seem), but being chosen wasn’t fun for Jeremiah. In fact, it was quite miserable.

So the gentile church has no cause for boasting or for thinking of themselves as better than others. That’s not the point of being chosen by God. The point of being chosen by God is mission–whatever mission God has for you.

Thus while I say that the promise cannot be fulfilled as written, because it wasn’t, yet God is faithful to act with consistency. A rebellious church might consider a serious reading of Jeremiah 18.