Registration is Now Open for the Conference with Michael Gorman at Northeastern Seminary

Registration is now open for the March 18-19 theology conference with Michael Gorman on the theme of Participation in God’s Mission. The conference is sponsored by Northeastern Seminary, in partnership with the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association. It will be held on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, NY.

You can register for the conference online here (or download a registration form to be mailed in). There is an early bird discount for registering by February 1, 2016 and there is further discounted registration available for students.

The theology conference proper, with Gorman’s keynote address on “John: The Nonsectarian, Missional Gospel,” runs from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm on Saturday, March 19, 2016.

Dr. Gorman will also be giving a public lecture on “Paul, the Mission of God, and the Contemporary Church” at 7:30 pm on March 18, the Friday evening before the conference. Anyone registered for the conference or in the Rochester area is invited to attend this free lecture.

A full schedule of the conference, including descriptions of Dr. Gorman’s two lectures, can be found here.

Meanwhile the Call for Papers is still open for a few more days. The deadline for receiving paper proposals is January 11, 2016. The Call for Papers can be accessed here, and further information about the conference will be posted on the conference website and the Northeastern Seminary Facebook page.

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Let’s Put Herod Back into Christmas (A Meditation on Matthew 2:1-23)

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16)

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As long as I can remember, I’ve heard Christians bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, the mad rush to buy gifts, the annual spending frenzy. “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” was their recurring refrain. Although I’m sympathetic with the genuine concern here, I think it’s misplaced.

The commercialization of Christmas doesn’t actually exclude Christ. He’s there in the manger scenes we know and love, even in department stores and shopping malls. The Christ-child lies blissfully in a decorative, gilt-edged manger lit by neon and flashing colored lights, while the muzak drones, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The problem is not that the commercialization of Christmas has displaced Christ. The problem is that this Christ doesn’t match the biblical portrayal. According to Matthew, Jesus did not sleep in heavenly peace. On the contrary he slept—if at all—in the midst of great danger and death. It’s difficult to sleep when you’re a refugee, fleeing for your life. It’s difficult to sleep with Herod around.

Unfortunately, the Christ that many Christians want to put back into Christmas tends to be a sentimentalized figure, strangely removed from the world of Herod—the real world of pain and brokenness. And so this Christ is largely irrelevant. A baby sleeping in heavenly peace is irrelevant to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, to anyone who’s been sexually abused, to anyone living in a war zone. He’s irrelevant to the unemployed and the underemployed, to those struggling with doubt and disappointment. He’s certainly irrelevant to anyone sleeping downtown on a heating grate this winter. Tear-jerking manger scenes and soothing Christmas carols just don’t cut it in a world that’s full of the reality of Herod.

This is not to deny the traditional picture of the Christ-child lying vulnerable in Bethlehem with the wise men bringing gifts. But it’s important not to miss the point Matthew makes (quoting Micah) that the Messiah was born in small-town Bethlehem (no-place, Judah) because God bypassed glorious Jerusalem, the great city, where Herod ruled. And God bypassed Herod, king of the Jews, and chose to work through a poor peasant couple and a child of questionable birth-status.

And who comes to worship the child? Not Herod, nor any orthodox religious leaders, but pagan astrologers. This baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem was perceived rightly by these “wise” pagans to be the true king of the Jews, whose birth had such cosmic significance that there was a new star in the heavens. Herod himself rightly perceived this baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem to be a threat to his pretensions of power. So threatening, indeed, as to justify the frenzied slaughter of innocent babies.

This doesn’t mean we should never enjoy manger scenes or get teary-eyed when we sing carols or watch the kids acting out the nativity story. But let’s never forget why God showered his unfathomable love upon us at Christmas two thousand years ago: because he cared so much for our wounds, and for this suffering world, that he personally entered the fray, this bloodbath we call history, to redeem us—and history—from the bloodbath.

So, although I can appreciate the desire to “put Christ back into Christmas” in order to counter the commercialization of this sacred holiday, I want to suggest that we put Herod back into Christmas, and so counter the sentimentalized glitz with which the season has been papered over.

The fact is that Herod is integral to Christmas, because Herod places the birth of Jesus squarely in history. At one level that’s literally true. We date Jesus’ birth between 6 and 4 B.C. because Herod died in 4 B.C. and he ordered the slaughter of children under two. Herod places Jesus chronologically in history. But Herod also places Jesus in the harsh reality of history. Jesus didn’t come into some mythical, storybook, never-never land. He came into the world of Herod. The world we know only too well.

And he came to take Herod out. That’s what Christmas is all about: the decisive blow God dealt to evil, injustice, and suffering at the cross. But it started in Bethlehem, when a baby lying vulnerable in a manger threatened a tyrant. Can we, like the wise men, discern the cosmic significance of that this Christmas?

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This article by J. Richard Middleton first appeared in The Catalyst (Toronto), vol. 16, nos. 8-9 (November-December 1993) and received an award in 1994 for best “Theological Reflection—Inspirational” from the Canadian Church Press.

Debunking a Myth: This World Doesn’t Matter to God

Back in 1983 when I was a campus minister and grad student in philosophy at the University of Guelph, I teamed up with two fellow-students and another campus minister to write a short booklet called Ten Myths About Christianity. The purpose of the booklet was to engage—and debunk—some of the most egregious misconceptions about Christianity that we had encountered.

When I recently re-read the booklet, the way we addressed some of the myths seemed a bit outdated to my ears. Indeed, myth #5 was originally entitled “Christianity is otherworldly and irrelevant to life in the twentieth century,” and we’re now in the twenty-first century! But it struck me that our response to this myth is still a central and much-needed theological affirmation, and it continues to function as a foundation for my worldview.

A few years after we wrote the booklet our response to myth #5 was published under the title “Are Christians Other-Worldly?” in an anthology called Exploring Apologetics: Selected Readings (1992).

What follows is my updated and expanded version of what we wrote thirty years ago.

Is Christianity Otherworldly and Irrelevant to Life in the Twenty-First Century?

There’s no doubt that many Christians seem otherworldly and even irrelevant by their attitudes and actions. Some Christians seem to care nothing for the suffering of others in situations of injustice; others seem to think the earth is a disposable commodity that will be destroyed when Christ returns.

But this does not reflect the main emphasis of the Bible, which is the foundation of Christian teaching. Far from being otherworldly, biblical Christianity emphasizes the importance of this world in three main ways.

Creation

First of all, the Bible claims that the entire universe is created by God and is therefore good and important. Far from negating or devaluing the world, the Bible teaches that God loves his creation and providentially sustains the world as a good place to live. The world (both human and non-human) exists to manifest God’s glory, and God rejoices in what he has made.

Incarnation

But the importance of the world is supported also by the doctrine of the incarnation, the Christian teaching that God became man in Jesus Christ. The authentic humanity of Jesus is constantly affirmed by the Bible. He was not some spiritual manifestation or temporary avatar, but a real-life, flesh-and-blood person, located in a particular time, place, and culture. The coming of God in the person of a first-century Galilean peasant was deeply contextual. Indeed, the incarnation was the culmination of God’s revelation through centuries of Israelite history.

But why the incarnation? Why did God get involved with the world in this way?

Because creation went wrong. Humanity has chosen evil in rebellion against its Creator, and the world is no longer totally good. Corruption has set in, evident both in the individual heart and in the social systems and institutions we have created.

Yet God has not given up on the world. This is the tremendous message of the Christian gospel. God loves us to the point of becoming a human being, even suffering death on a Roman imperial instrument of torture, to free us from evil, to bring salvation.

Salvation

The salvation God offers constitutes the third way in which biblical Christianity affirms the importance of this world.

Though Christianity is often characterized as a pie-in-the-sky religion, concerned with a hereafter of disembodied existence in an ethereal heaven, this is a gross distortion of its message. There is certainly a future hope of the “kingdom of God.” But this kingdom is also present in the midst of history. Jesus proclaimed the presence of the kingdom (God’s coming rule to restore the world) and enacted this kingdom by healing diseased bodies, casting out demons, challenging the oppressive social order of his time, and offering forgiveness and hope to those in bondage to sin.

Beyond the radical in-breaking of the kingdom into the midst of history, the Bible describes the ultimate goal of this kingdom in the most concrete terms. Scripture promises the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the social order—indeed, the renewal of the entire cosmos (“a new heaven and a new earth”).

Biblical salvation is consistently holistic. Christianity’s final vision is of the eradication of evil from the universe. Christ came to restore the created order to what it was meant to be, and that includes every aspect of human (and non-human) life.

Christians must be otherworldly, in one sense

This means that there is an important sense in which Christians must be otherworldly. Precisely because they envision a world free of evil—as God’s intent from the beginning and as the goal of history—they cannot accept this world at face value. They are otherworldly in that they look beyond the distortions and pretensions of this world (the present age) to the world that is to come. They know there is something better.

Christians are called to be fundamentally this-worldly

But that means that Christianity is fundamentally this-worldly. Christians are called upon to oppose evil in all of its individual and socio-cultural manifestations. They are to work toward healing, love, and justice in this world. In the context of our modern (and increasingly postmodern) civilization of violence, oppression, and narcissism, this calling is certainly neither otherworldly nor irrelevant.

Some Background on Ten Myths About Christianity

When we wrote the booklet Ten Myths About Christianity, all four authors were part of Guelph Christian Fellowship, a local branch of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) in Ontario, Canada. We were commissioned to write the booklet for use in a week of Christian outreach at the University of Guelph in Fall 1983.

We kicked off the outreach week with a panel discussion in the Student Centre on four of the myths (one of which was myth #5), and throughout the week we distributed hundreds of copies of the booklet to those interested in reading further. We also had an artist in our IVCF group design a set of ten posters, each representing one of the myths. These posters were on display in a public thoroughfare on campus throughout the week.

The week of outreach, which we called “There Must Be More” (a line taken from a Bruce Cockburn song, “More Not More”), included public lectures and workshops on faith and science, faith and social issues, faith and history, faith and art, faith and philosophy, etc. as well as various cultural/artistic events and a culminating multimedia presentation that used music and visuals to explore questions of ultimate meaning in contemporary culture. The point of the week was to address how the Christian faith could impact life in the real world with integrity and in a holistic way.

The outreach week was so successful in engendering meaningful conversations about Christianity (not to mention some actual conversions) that we did it again the following year, and other campuses in southwestern Ontario followed suit. This led us to revise the booklet in 1984 and we turned the original set of hand drawn posters into a durable set that could be reproduced and owned by different campus ministry groups. Then in 1988 one of the original authors (Gord Carkner, together with theologian Michael Green) expanded the booklet into a short book with the same title (which is now out of print).