Bringing Heaven Down To Earth

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Monday, March 10, 2008

JSNT on Anti-Nero Rhetoric in Revelation

From JSNT:

The Year of the Four Emperors and the Revelation of John: The `pro-Neronian' Emperors Otho and Vitellius, and the Images and Colossus of Nero in Rome
George H. van Kooten
Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 30, No. 2, 205-248 (2007)

This article draws attention to the events of the `Year of the Four Emperors', the period of unrest and civil war which followed Nero's death in 68 CE. Their bearing on the Revelation of John has been underestimated. My aims are to demonstrate the centrality of Nero in John's understanding of the seven-headed beast, and its image, and to propose a precise dating for the composition of Revelation in the period under Galba, Otho and Vitellius in 68/69 CE. This involves an analysis of Nero's Golden House, his colossal statue and the pro-Neronian attitude of his successors Otho and Vitellius. After my consistent rereading of Revelation in the context of 68/69 CE, I set out to disprove the common interpretation of Revelation, which draws upon the provincial imperial cult in Asia under Domitian. I finish by showing the relevance of Nero's expected return for a reading public in the Roman province of Asia.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

New N.T. Wright book on heaven

I'm really excited about N.T. Wright's new book on heaven: it will take someone of his stature, intellect, and passion to actually make some headway in getting Christians to rediscover what the Bible actually says about heaven.

Friday, January 18, 2008

"From life's first cry to final breath"

This week in DCM brought us a stark encounter with the reality of death and the hope of resurrection. On Monday we watched the wrenching Frontline documentary on Thomas Lynch's funeral home, followed by two segments of N.T. Wright's stirring DVD on the resurrection.

On Tuesday, we visited a local cemetery and held a "Service of Reaffirmation of Resurrection Hope" in the chapel there. These words from "In Christ Alone" took on new meaning as we sang them there:

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no human plan,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

Another report on DCM visit to St. Nicholas

Another report on our visit to St. Nicholas, this one by Rob VanderVennen.

For our DCM class, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, we attended St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in order to learn more about their denomination and style of worship. This fit in with our class very much because for the Orthodox, worship is heaven on earth. Orthodox worship is done in a very different manner than what I am used to in the Christian Reformed Church. The service is much more formal and it is based much more on tradition. They still quote lines that are in Arabic and some Greek, referring to Mary as the Theotokos, or birth giver of God. Chanting is used very often by the leaders and congregation as a form of worship. There is also a choir in the back balcony that sings out lines such as “Lord have Mercy” after the priest has read Scripture. The purpose of having the choir in the back is so the people do not focus on the choir but the meaning of the words.

They also had icons all over the church of Jesus, Mary, the apostles, and various other people. According to Paul Meyendorff, “They intend to convey this: you stand in the presence of the living God, together with the Saints and the righteous of every age.” I appreciated these paintings but was not sure whether or not I liked them in the church. It seemed they belonged more in an art museum. I noticed that there were children involved in some of the worship service such as when the deacons would walk around with incense, there would be boys holding some poles with candles burning in them. I also noticed that all members of the Orthodox Church eat the bread and get a scoop of some powder. It seemed similar to our form of communion.

Visiting the church was quite an experience and I am glad that I attended the service. I thought it would be similar to a Catholic service and in some ways it was, but it was also very different than the Catholics. I felt a sense of deep reverence in the church and felt closer to God at St. Nicholas than my own church. It was easy to tell that the Orthodox tradition was being preserved in the church, whereas in my own church we are changing with the times and becoming more modern.

I liked the congregation participation during the service as they chanted things back to the priest. One thing that I did not like about the Orthodox service was the short sermon. I thought that it would actually be too long but it was too short in my opinion. I think a sermon should be at least fifteen minutes and that most of one’s spiritual growth comes from the sermon. I was not sure how I felt about the singing of the Scriptures. It was very poetic and pleasant but seemed out of place; I think reading the Scripture would give the same effect. Overall, I actually enjoyed the experience and I give a lot of respect to the Orthodox believers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Busy Thursday in DCM

Yesterday was a busy day for us in DCM 150-41. After a morning discussion on ethnic diversity in heaven, based on chapter 3 of Richard Mouw's When the Kings Come Marching In, we left for the Grand Rapids Art Museum. We had at least five reasons from our course for going to this art museum:

- the GRAM is the first newly constructed LEED-certified art museum in the world, which fit with what we said this week about creation care.
- one of the exhibits at the GRAM is "Nature Revealed," which helps illustrate what we've been saying about heaven on earth.
- a temporary exhibit at the GRAM features the work of local artist Chris Van Allsburg, which echoes our reflections on the importance of imagination.
- our discussion of culture as the work of our hands developing creation--which includes art and architecture.
- the experience of being downtown set up our discussion today of urbanism and heaven.

In addition to particular paintings that echoed some of our course themes, the visit left me with one more metaphor to connect to our class -- what the docents said about "learning to see." Not learning the correct way to see, but learning how to look at a painting -- or, as the Orthodox would say about an icon, how to look through it -- looking at it long and repeatedly, letting new details or interpretations come to you as you look. This struck me as a pretty good (though not perfect) metaphor for learning to look at the apocalyptic visions of Scripture.

In the afternoon, we joined two other DCM classes at the Bunker Interpretive Center to hear Janel Curry talk about the range of Christian responses to the crisis of global warming. (You can listen to a version of this lecture and follow the PowerPoint here -- scroll to Oct. 26, 2007.) Then we helped the other two classes, which have been talking about global warming, adapt Dr. Curry's framework for responding to global warming to their own.

'Heaven on Earth' at St. Nicholas Antiochian Church

In DCM: Bringing Heaven Down To Earth, one of the first things we did was introduce Eastern Orthodox worship as "heaven on earth" (using this article from Christian History magazine) and visited St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church ( here in Grand Rapids.

Nicole DeFillipi wrote this reflection on our experience.

Many denominations of Christianity have different views on how to worship God. The Orthodox church is an example of a denomination where the style of worshipping is quite different from many other churches. The members of the Eastern Orthodox church believe their worship brings a piece of Heaven to earth. While trying to explain this idea on Orthodox worship, Paul Meyendorff writes an article named “A Taste of Glory.” In this article Mayendorff explains “we are transported to where he is, so that every time the church gathers for worship, we experience a foretaste of the kingdom.”* There is a sense of mystery and greatness to the Orthodox way of worship. This aspect alone has drawn many to the Orthodox church.

Chanting is the primary way to worship God. Although this form of worship is different from many other churches, it can be revered and regarded as a sacred act. Icons are also highly respected because they help remind the Orthodox church members of Bible stories and why they are worshipping God. The icons are painted all over the sanctuary. Beautiful gold paint is used in most of the icons. Important people such as Jesus, Mary, the disciples and various saints are painted on the walls. The architecture is also meaningful. There is a dome that extends the ceiling even higher in the sanctuary. This represents their worship and how it penetrates into Heaven. Worship is able to break the barrier between Heaven and Earth. The Orthodox architecture helps to explain what occurs in their place of worship when the name of Jesus is lifted.

The experience of an Orthodox church service is not one soon forgotten. Although visiting the Orthodox church was an enlightening experience that greatly broadened my horizons, they practice many things which I do not agree with. The services seem to be based mostly on tradition. The actual sermon was very short. This bothered me somewhat because I have a hard time understanding how the congregation could grow spiritually from a short sermon. It is understandable that the congregation can learn things from being in God’s presence but I believe this must me accompanied by a teaching of his word.

I am not opposed to all artwork in churches but I believe the interior artwork in the Orthodox church is too excessive. I am aware that Orthodox members do not worship these icons but I believe that they have the potential of hindering worship. I also do not think children should be allowed to partake in the sacrament of communion. Small children were eating the bread as if it was a snack in the middle of service. 1 Corinthians 11 makes it clear that communion is not a snack. It is a sacrament that is to be revered. I do not think children should partake in this act until they understand what it represents and that it is not to be taken lightly. These are the major concerns I have.

It is remarkable, however, that a denomination has remained the same over hundreds of years. The tradition of Orthodoxy is obviously appealing because members of other denominations are becoming Orthodox members. Orthodoxy provides structure for its members. It also brings out a feeling of commonality since their worship style is virtually the same as Orthodox members from centuries ago.

* Meyendorff, Paul. "A Taste of Glory." Christian History Issue 54. p. 41

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Friday, January 04, 2008

New Yorker on 'The Afterlife: Cutting Back'

I had to chuckle at this satirical piece in the New Yorker: The Afterlife: Cutting Back, a fictional internal memo about downsizing hell and improving customer satisfaction in heaven:

There is trouble in paradise as well—beginning with the fact that the amenities We have provided, though immeasurably burdensome to maintain interminably, are currently perceived by their beneficiaries as “kind of boring,” “not exactly what I was expecting,” or “O.K., I guess” (to cite the three most common responses from a recent opinion sample). It may be that rivers of bright light and ladders of gold seem less impressive to contemporary reviewers than they did to Dante, Blake, and others. Studies have indicated that replacing all such benefits with just two activities not currently offered—sex and golf—would increase consumer satisfaction by many percentage points while cutting costs by orders of magnitude. Such a change might also reduce the prevalence of another common complaint—namely, that “all the interesting people are in the other place.”


Saturday, December 30, 2006

To Be Continued...

After over a year of blogging here about my book, I'm going to idle, though I'll keep tweaking the chapter resources and other links (and will add things under Comments). I'll also be adding an essay on the word heaven in the new year (update: now posted). And I'll keep thinking, reflecting, and nourishing my ever-prone-to-falter hope.

Thanks for all your comments and feedback so far, and keep 'em coming!

picture at YahooUpdate: Yes, that was the guy from my book cover at the home page recently, but no, the article wasn't about my book. Apparently, the company that supplied the cover photo for my book (given as Stockbyte Premium/Getty) supplied a similar shot for an article about the job market. Whoever that guy is, he sure is versatile -- he can contemplate heaven and worry about the job market with the same facial expression!

Friday, December 22, 2006

December Discussions

I've been privileged to share in some enriching discussions about heaven and my book this past month:

- Last week I met with a book group of local CRC pastors. One of the themes that emerged in our discussion is that everyone--even or especially in the church--lives with alternate eschatologies or at least mobilizing hopes (to condense Moltmann's phrase on page 5 of my book), whether it be political ideologies, career advancement, materialist prosperity, "family values," social justice, ethnic pride, etc. The preacher's task, then, is to speak the true eschatology, the true mobilizing hope, against those who are living Monday through Saturday according to different mobilizing hopes.

- Earlier this month I met for one final time with my Covenant Group at Eastern Ave. CRC, which has met every other week since September. We all said that we still had so many daunting unanswered questions about heaven, so we were all moved when one member invited us to end on this verse from 1 Corinthians 2, and to be assured that what is unknown is known by God:

No eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him.

Mentions in Christianity Today and the Calvin Spark

The Importance of Knowing What's Important
by Andy Crouch
Christianity Today

And then I ran across this piquant phrase in Nathan Bierma's book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, in which he quotes a play by (coincidentally) Daniel Jurman ...

Bookshelf: Bringing Heaven Down To Earth
Calvin College Spark

Relevant Revolutionary Readings on Revelation ...

... and heaven, and hell:

Christ Among the Candlesticks
Sermon on Revelation 1:9-20
Leonard J. Vander Zee
South Bend Christian Reformed Church
November 26, 2006

Knocking on Heaven’s Door
Sermon at Duke Chapel
Samuel Wells
Dec. 3, 2006

Refiner's Fire
Sermon at Duke Chapel
Samuel Wells
Dec. 10, 2006

Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age
by Tim Keller

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Visit to LaSalle Street Church

I was delighted to be able to lead a discussion about heaven last weekend at LaSalle Street Church in downtown Chicago, where we attended regularly a couple years ago (and which I profiled for RW). One of the questions that came up and stuck with me was, "How does the kingdom of God relate to heaven?" At first I said that the kingdom is a sort of underground kingdom for now, but will be the kingdom on the new earth. Then I simplified it a little and said, "The kingdom IS heaven." Maybe I should have gone back to the N.T. Wright quote on empire in Chapter 8.

But later I got thinking about Jesus' phrase "kingdom of heaven," which seems to be synonymous with "kingdom of God," and is used seemingly eschatologically. The Greek phrase is "basileia tôn ouranôn," with ouranôn being the same word as in Revelation 21, with the same ambiguity between its literal meaning of "sky" and figurative meaning of "ethereal realm of the dwelling of God."