All posts by Jeremy Chen

Jeremy graduated from Princeton University in 2011 with a degree in Civil Engineering & Architecture. He is also self-conscious about making that the first fact on an "about you" bio - as if his education is the most important thing for you to know about him! (It's not.) But to get the rest of it out of the way, Jeremy is currently pursuing an M.Div. at Westminster Theological Seminary in PA, with the goal of doing...something "ministry" related. He tries to be straddle both the thought-worlds of problem-solvers and creative thinkers, but he also finds himself trying to be a bridge-builder in a lot of other areas of life as well. Ministry-wise, he is passionate about helping the Christian church recover a holistic understanding of our calling to pursue justice and flourishing for all. Currently, he's unlearning most of what he thought he knew about life from some wise & experienced urban ministry folks in North Philly.

Some thoughts from 1 Samuel 3 (Part 1)

1 Samuel 3 is one of the chapters in the book that actually does speak about Samuel. (He isn’t even named in many of the chapters – including the 4 chapters immediately preceding his funeral in chapter 25. Although he does briefly reappear as a ghost in chapter 28…and then there’s 2 Samuel, which isn’t about Samuel at all…) As the last three verses indicate (1:19-21), the story is a prophetic calling narrative, showing how all Israel came to recognize him as God’s authorized spokesman.

Short chapter summary: God calls out to young Samuel late in the night, but Samuel misinterprets the voice as Eli’s, yelling to him from the other room. After making this mistake twice, his mentor Eli finally recognizes that Samuel must be hearing from God and advises him to speak directly to God next time. God then gives Samuel an oracle against his mentor Eli and his sons, which he tells Eli in the morning.

I really like this story. Not only is this a story that captures our imagination, but it’s a story with layers of meaning packed into it, if you look closely enough – if you have “eyes to see.” Here are some things that caught my attention:

v. 1: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent.”

  1. In the circles I usually run in, “the word of the Lord” is typically understood as codeword for “the Bible” or, perhaps, “the gospel message.” Here, it seems that the phrase is being used differently, in a way that might fit more comfortably in more “charismatic” Christian settings, where people speak more frequently of God directly speaking to them. “I heard God tell me to share the gospel with her, so I did.” “God told me to go to China for missions.” It is often in these settings that visions and dreams are more accepted as legitimate ways that God continues to communicate to us today. Here, the phrase clearly isn’t being used to talk about the extant written scriptures (what would it mean for them to be “rare”?). The rarity of hearing a specific, momentary word from God is being paralleled with the infrequency of visions, which are another form of spiritual encounter with God, intended for communicating specific messages. Another question that arises here: Why was the word of the Lord infrequent? Did it have to do with the lack of spiritual receptivity, so that this introductory phrase is an indictment on Israel for its spiritual deafness and blindness? Perhaps we also need to ask ourselves whether we are open to hearing from God today – perhaps, even, through more “charismatic” ways of communication?
  2. Does anyone besides me notice the mixed metaphor here? The word – the basic unit of verbal, auditory communication – is spoken of in parallel with visions – a visually-experienced, and therefore perhaps more ambiguous, form of communication. Words are heard with our ears. Visions are seen with our eyes. Words can certainly be misheard or misunderstood, but visions often require a mediating interpreter (remember Daniel?). Both forms of communication, though, require discernment and attentiveness in order for the message to be successfully received. You must have keen eyesight to see the vision; you must have good hearing to listen to the word of the Lord.

Coming up in Part 2: thoughts from verse 2. I’ll leave the verse here for you to mull over – maybe you’ll see some of the connections that I’ll be pointing out in my next post. Reading over chapter 1-2 could help as well.

It happened at that time as Eli was lying down in his place (now his eyesight had begun to grow dim and he could not see well).

A prayer to end this post: God, speak to us! We want to hear from you. Use as your spokespeople. And if you already are speaking to us and revealing things to us, but we just aren’t listening or paying attention, unstop our ears and open our eyes, so that we can listen carefully, see clearly, and obey you. Help us to recognize all the ways you speak to us, and to be attentive to your words, so that we can help others to listen to you as well.

May it be to us according to your word,

Amen.

Amen.

Faith & Advent, Angels, Superstition, Weed.

Advent season is upon us, and Jeremy finally returns to writing for the Gospel Worldview Blog. Perhaps it’s in anticipation of the New Year and those dreaded resolutions. (If I recall correctly, I think I had something purposefully vague like “write more often” in my short list last year…) Maybe it’s also that I feel like I’ve had something to say for a long time but haven’t had the discipline or mental energy to sit down and do it. It could also be that I’ve been inspired by discovering a friend’s posts about life here in the inner city of North Philly – posts I find hilarious, but also thought-provoking. I wish I could write like that.

But enough self-conscious reflection about my actual sitting down and writing. Too much more of this, and it’ll feel like i’m trying to imitate a Dave Eggers novel.

Advent is a concentrated season of reflection on the incarnation. It’s also a season where we emphasize hope, and try to practice it. People also talk about love in this season – “Love was Born on Christmas Day,” as Christina Rossetti poetically put it (wait what? Hm…gotta think about that a bit…). Not as many people talk about faith. Faith seems to be more Hebrews 11 territory. Or maybe the book of John, or even Romans. We don’t teach about those passages so much during Christmas time in Christian churches. During and leading up to Christmas, we talk about the beginning of Luke or Matthew, maybe even pop open Isaiah 9 or Micah 5.

I want to talk about faith.

What does real faith look like? How is it connected to beliefs? If it is “by faith” that we are absolved of our sins and made right with God, what does “faith” mean?

This morning, a young guy came to our church’s morning Bible study and prayer time. He lives only about a block away, but we hadn’t seen him in a while – since about the middle of the summer. He’s a chill guy in his mid-20s (Ok, so I clearly need to work on my descriptions of people…). Came to Philly from Puerto Rico not long ago. As we were starting our Bible study, he told me why he was back:

“I wanted weed this morning but I couldn’t find any of it. Man, that was God talkin’. He wanted me to come back over here for church.”

He confessed that he’d been recently addicted to Heroine; honestly, only three days clean. I back-calculated: that means he’s been clean since Saturday. I had stopped by his place on Friday to pick up his little brother for a youth church event, and we had chatted a little bit. Maybe God used that short moment that we talked (as I waited for his little brother to put on his jacket and get out the door), to remind him of God’s presence, I thought to myself.

He continued:

“Last night I was prayin’ and I felt that flavor on me, you know. That flavor that’s like…God telling you something.” I nodded.

Yeah. I know that flavor, I thought to myself. I’ve experienced it before too. I experience it a lot. It’s that conviction that I receive as I pray that God would remove my sin – the conviction that God is pleased with my prayer. That ineffable thing I feel when I pray in hope for God’s kingdom to come, and I somehow just know that it is happening, that God has listened to my prayer. It’s that sense of God’s special love for me that I get sometimes when I’m doing something that’s really hard for me to do and that I really don’t like doing – “picking up the cross,” you could call it.

He felt that flavor. And somehow, he knew it was God. But not only did he recognize it was God, he responded – waking up early today to come to morning prayer.

He told a bunch of other stories about times he’s experienced God’s special touch, stories involving guns and cops, demons, drugs. I believed him about these stories – not just that he felt that he experienced those things, but I believed that he was right: those things were really God’s revelation of himself to him. God really was speaking to him in those experiences, I thought. Instead of responding with a default attitude of suspicion that relegates these types of stories to the “superstition”/folk religion box, I saw these stories as testimonies of authentic experiences of faith. Experiences from God.

Maybe part of it was that since the beginning of this advent season, I’ve been reading about a lot of “supernatural” (although I’d prefer the word “wondrous”) sorts of things that occur when God shows up to dwell amongst human beings: an angel appearing to a young virgin and telling her she’s going to conceive a son, and an awesome one at that; hosts of angels making an appearance to a bunch of shepherds grazing their sheep (Have you ever wondered: did the sheep see it too?), that spectacular star that guides a bunch of sages traveling from the East to come honor this baby with gifts worthy of a king.

Maybe I believed with this guy that those experiences were really experiences from God because of my own recent “touched by an angel” experience. In a time when I cried out to God and needed his confirmation of his presence, guiding hand, and protection, he assured me of his presence in a wondrous – yes, even angelic – way. Not angels singing in the sky, not an angel delivering me a message, but, I believe, angels nonetheless.

So I haven’t talked that much in this post about faith yet (maybe I’ll need to save that for a future post…), but suffice to say, it is these kinds of lived experience of faith that I see a lot here in the inner city – experiences which I would likely in the past have readily dismissed off-hand – that have gotten me thinking about the nature of faith. Not a lot of people here, I would say, have what I would consider a robust theological system of beliefs about God. In fact, a lot of their beliefs about Jesus are problematic. But, their experiences of God, I think, are real (or, at least, many of them). Of course, I’m not endorsing a blanket assumption that all peoples’ self-understandings of their experiences of God are authentic, but as I’ve listened to people here and lived here, I’ve come to see the need for me to refine my understanding of what authentic faith is. These people are following the same Jesus I’m following. They’re trusting the same savior I’m trusting, experiencing the same God-with-us that I’ve experienced. Some of their beliefs will have to change over time, and I hope my church is a part of that. But their relationship with God, I’m convinced, is one of authentic faith.

So then, what is it that we have in common? What is authentic faith? Sometime, I think I’ll try to take a look at all the uses of the word faith (which Roy Clouser does a decent job of here), but for now let me take a stab at it here:

Authentic faith recognizes God’s very presence (Immanuel – “God with us”) in the person of Jesus. It hears the promises of God’s messengers, and takes them to heart, treasuring them. It recognizes when God is using certain things – like times when you can’t find drugs to get high on, or experiences of that Holy Spirit flavor – to wake you up Spiritually and get you back in church. It recognizes that when that drunk driver who was about to run over you narrowly misses at the last second, it wasn’t blind luck: it was because, for those who take refuge in the Most High, God’s angels won’t let their feet strike even a rock.

I think being here in the inner city has grown my faith and helped me to better understand this season of Advent.

What do you think?

”Some of what Jeremy’s been reading and thinking about.”

For a while, I’ve wanted to share with other Christians, especially Manna people, about some of the books I’ve read recently. But I’ve been demotivated because 1) there’s so many books I’ve wanted to share it’s been hard to decide where to start, and 2) I felt like I wouldn’t do justice to any of the books unless I gave an in-depth review of them, and I just haven’t had the time or patience to sit down and write one of those kinds of essays.

Well, to get past those hurdles, I decided to just flat out ignore both those hindrances here. Instead of choosing one book, I’m going to write about several books. And instead of writing in-depth about each of them, I’ll make my comments highly summarized – just enough to get the gist for someone not super interested in the topic. But also, perhaps, just enough to whet the appetite of a more interested person to perhaps read the book. Think of this as a sort of pseudo-bibliographic essay, but also a window into my mind recently. I’m going to call this “Some of what Jeremy’s been reading and thinking about.” So here goes.

 

 

”Some of what Jeremy’s been reading and thinking about”

“Existential Reasons for Belief in God” by Clifford Williams

The reason I read it this summer was that the title caught my attention. Esoteric book about God? COOL. I WANT IT. But also, it got to something I’ve always wondered about: Is it OK for a person’s reason for believing in God to be simply that they feel a need for God? Is trusting in Jesus without having thought deeply through rational arguments for or against God’s existence foolish or even sinfully irresponsible? Feuerbach said that God is simply the longing of the human soul personified; Freud said human beings project their repressed desire for an exalted father onto the idea of a personal, Heavenly Father. Religion is wish-fulfillment. Marx: it’s a crutch, an opiate for the needy masses. Are they right?

Clifford Williams, I think, makes a very convincing case for the legitimacy of even some of the most seemingly illogical (or at least the embarrassing ones that we Christians would usually blush at) existential reasons for faith. He argues that not only is paying attention to our feelings of need for God an important part of making sense of Christianity, but that having merely “rational” reasons for believing in God doesn’t make sense. The ideal (and, I would add, the only authentic) way of acquiring faith in God, he says, is through both need and reason – a faith that consists of both emotions and intellectual assent. In other words, we should definitely use our mental faculties to weigh the evidence to make sure that our belief in God isn’t merely a crutch, but we should also recognize that if God has indeed created us with a need for him in our inner being (Pascal’s famous/infamous “God-shaped” hole), our existential needs are something we’re supposed to pay attention to! I know I didn’t do the book justice here, because reading over what I just wrote it doesn’t seem that awesome. But it is. You should just read it. (I have it on kindle if you want to borrow it for 2 weeks!)

“Heart and Soul: A Christian View of Psychology” by William Ouweneel

Speaking of our inner feelings, I’ve been fascinated with thinking through how our heart-relationship with God/spirituality relates to our psychology. There’s a lot of complex, difficult questions that arise when you open up this can of worms. To what extent do psychological problems originate in our spiritual relationship with God? How do we tell when a psychological issue is a presenting problem arising from physiological imbalances? How do we tell when it originates in improper spiritual relationship to God? How do our thoughts relate to our emotions, and our thoughts to our beliefs? What about psychosomatic disorders? While this book (free PDF here!) didn’t provide a clear-cut answer to all these questions, it did give me some tools to start with, beginning with its treatment of how the different levels of our human functioning relates to our psychology. He explained how our human psychology arises as a composite of our physical (relationship between sensory stimulation and perception, psychopharmacology, etc.), biological (neuropsychology, physiological psychology), perceptive (psychology of sensation/perception/conditioning), sensitive (psychology of our feelings), and cognitive (psychology of thinking, deliberation) structures, but also touched on social, economic, ethical, and even religious psychology as other interrelated fields. What I found the most helpful in reading this was that it gave me a starting point to see how interconnected our psychological functioning is and to recognize that helping someone who is suffering from psychological dysfunction requires a multi-faceted approach. Even if Christians may rely on truth from God’s Word to give us wisdom for living psychologically faithful lives, it’s also important to recognize the way our psychology is interconnected with the many layers of our human existence so that we don’t naively think that helping people focus on truths about Jesus will fix all of their psychological issues. Our human brokenness and frailty extends deep into all of the structures of our human existence; while we are called to help each other live as faithfully as we can with whatever psychological constitution we’ve each been given, short of a miracle, many people will only finally experience full psychological healing when Christ finally arrives to renew all things. Thank God he is coming again. How awesome will it be when we’re no longer beset with this constant struggle in inner self? How awesome will it be when our intentions, thoughts, motivations, desires, impulses, fears, loves all work properly for God’s glory?

“Christian philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction” by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen 

Zooming out a bit, let’s talk about GOSPEL WORLDVIEW. Do you remember when you first got the expansiveness of Manna’s Gospel Worldview? When you became excited about how God cares about everything, not just only our individual spirituality? Well in a way, the shift that was happening there was a philosophical shift – from viewing Christianity through some implicit form of dualism (e.g. viewing the “Spiritual” as more holy than the “material” world) to seeing that the Gospel opens us up to a more holistic way of seeing everything – a way that is consistent with the idea that Jesus is the one in whom all creation holds together – things in heaven and on earth visible and invisible, etc. etc. (Colossians 1:15-23!)

Well, this book tells a sort of history of philosophical thought unashamedly out of this very gospel worldview. The authors are forthright that their history is not unbiased; they intentionally are telling the story in a way that highlights how philosophical thinking throughout history has reflected more and less faithful articulations (in their view) of what we at Manna call this “Gospel Worldview.” For the more theologically inclined, you could say that this book is a tracing of philosophical thought as a historical examination of the relationship between common grace and idolatry in the world of…ideas. Not for everyone, but I think anyone who wants a better picture of how philosophical ideas are embedded in our worldview, this was helpful for me in sorting through that. I would put it above Creation Regained on difficulty level, but below Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism.

 

I wanted to write about a bunch of other books, but I think I wrote too much already. So I guess I’ll have to do a second installment! For all you nerds out there (and let’s be honest…we’re Princeton grads…all of us are), be looking forward to..

“Books Jeremy owes library fines for: Recommended Christian books, Part Deux.”

And to whet your appetite:

  • Purpose in the Living World by Jacob Klapwijk (Evolution, Creation, Emergence theory, Intelligent Design, etc.)
  • The Economy of Desire by Daniel Bell (Spiritual disciplines + Economics, Spiritual evaluation of Capitalism)
  • Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman (How the heck are we supposed to understand all that bizarre imagery? And what’s with the Kill Bill-esque violence?)
  • Loves me, Loves me not: The ethics of unrequited love by Laura Smit (Think: God as our pursuing lover…etc.)
  • Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America by Robert Lupton (Urban ministry is where it’s at. I’m learning about all this stuff more through my church in North Philly. Poverty, justice, God’s Kingdom, all that jazz.)

Until then, read more! And love Jesus. And love the poor.

A Gospel of Flourishing or a Gospel of Faithfulness?

As a seminary student, I spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus and the Gospel of his Kingdom. And one thing I’ve realized over the years is that the Gospel is slippery. If we aren’t careful, our wandering hearts are prone to distort the truth of the Gospel in small ways, so that over time, the truth is lost. What began as a disciplined corrective towards what we recognized as distortions of the truth slowly begins to take on a life of its own, becoming its own form of distortion of truth leading us away from Christ. In a way, it is Christians’ realism about our own tendency to deceive ourselves that we need to check our teachings against faithful expressions of the Gospel in summarized formulations like this one, which in turn we need to be constantly checking against the Scriptures. When we do so, we will find that where a faithful Gospel worldview and distorted worldviews part ways often comes down to subtle nuances – overemphases, shifts in focus, fine distinctions. Yet without fail, we will also find that the resources for critiquing and renewing our worldviews are invariably found within the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Happy or Holy?
Take the worldview that has been variously called “Word of Faith,” “Health and Wealth,” “Name it and Claim it,” and the one I’ll be using here – the “Prosperity Gospel.” (Speaking of which, I’m hoping to read this book at some point – anyone want to read it with me?) While there isn’t necessarily any organized set of doctrinal affirmations among Prosperity Gospel teachers, the general emphasis that characterizes this worldview is a tendency to conflate spiritual well-being and worldly prosperity, measured in terms of financial success, social status, physical well-being, happiness, etc. Recognizing this as a distortion of the Christian Gospel, believers sometimes respond by affirming aphorisms like “God is more interested in you being holy than happy.” Others may say that God calls us not to be so focused on earthly success, but to focus on “spiritual” success – glorifying God, converting souls, amassing treasures in heaven, etc.

Christians with a Gospel Worldview will be dissatisfied with both answers. To the prosperity gospel believers, we’ll point out that believers like Abraham who are commended for their faith in Hebrews 11 were those who also “died in faith without receiving the things promised.” We’ll point to the numerous places throughout the Scriptures that warn believers that the prevailing character of their existence before the return of Christ will be one of suffering, struggle, persecution. We’ll point to those proverbs, or heck Ecclesiastes even, that suggest that it is folly to put our ultimate trust in riches or health.

To those who react with a “spiritualizing” response, we’ll point to how what was promised to Abraham was a promised land – a thoroughly earthly blessingNo promise of some sort of spiritual joy or holy contentment here. The promise certainly was connected to Abraham’s spiritual faithfulness to God, but the blessing that was promised wasn’t only the happiness intrinsic to the very act of loving God, the happiness that comes from being holy. It certainly included that, but the promise was for the kind of blessing that what we all intuitively recognize as a gift from God every time we pray after a flight – “Thank you God for keeping me safe.” It is the daily blessings that we recognize God tells us to ask him for in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” They are blessings that don’t only have to do with our being spiritually in right relation to God, but blessings that have to do with our prosperity here on earth.

Faithfulness & Flourishing 
If we start from a robust Gospel worldview, we recognize that the world was created for comprehensive flourishing – for shalom. And that as long as humanity remained spiritually trusting God, God would cause their earthly existence to flourish, to prosper. With sin, humanity’s spiritual death led to death in all dimensions of creation, such that physical thriving and happiness being a direct result of spiritual faithfulness no longer remains the order of the day. Indeed, a dominant theme in the Psalms is lament about the reality that in our world, it is the faithful who suffer while the wicked prosper.

As Scripture progress, nevertheless, we find that God still continues to promise flourishing for those who by faith trust in Him; though the prosperity awarded to the faithful is no longer to be expected to be fulfilled in this broken world, it remains a promise to be fulfilled when God comes to end sin and evil, death and injustice, once and for all. Nevertheless, God’s promise of flourishing does at times break into our present broken world, as evidenced in God’s constant faithfulness to his people in “working all things out for their comprehensive good.” (Romans 8:28) Biblical prosperity, then, obviously includes our physical flourishing. The typical dichotomy that is made between spiritual and physical prosperity should instead give way to the more Biblical distinction between present and future prosperity. God continues to promise prosperity to those who remain faithful to him, and though that promise remains largely a future reality, we experience  glimpses of that glorious future in the present.

The Cross
So, perhaps this could be summarized by saying this:  God promises ultimately to bring prosperity to those who remain faithful, but prosperity in the present (think: “already-not-yet”) largely looks like living faithfully in anticipation of receiving that gift. This guards against us preaching a naive prosperity Gospel that neglects the guaranteed difficulty of the Christian life, but it also frees us from captivity to an otherworldly piety that is unable to give us the motivation to work for real justice and flourishing in this world.

For Reformation theologian Martin Luther, the best corrective for helping Christians critique worldview distortions such as the ones discussed above was the cross of Christ. He distinguished between “theologians of glory” and “theologians of the cross.” “Theologians of glory” – a derogatory term for Luther – are unable to discern the glory of God as they look at Jesus on the cross. Instead of looking to Jesus’ faithfulness to God as a picture of true, faithful prosperity in this age, theologians of glory look to typical definitions of glory and prosperity that don’t require having spiritual understanding to recognize. “Theologians of the cross,” on the other hand, recognize in what seems like the foolishness and weakness of Jesus hanging on the cross the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1-2). They recognize that Christ on the cross was the embodiment of a faithful pursuit of prosperity, a pursuit which rejects temptations to seek cheap sources of fleeting happiness, to accrue success through injustice, to accept cheap substitutes of lasting, final, true flourishing. And they recognize that at his resurrection and glorification, Jesus ultimately did receive the glory and blessing promised to him – “all authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me.” (Matt. 28)