Bringing Heaven Down To Earth

blog for the book by Nathan Bierma • > Heaven > Blog

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Review in The Banner

Wayne Brouwer's brief review of my book in the current issue of The Banner has just been posted (8th item). I'm a little skittish about that term "worldly Christianity" without more context, but the blurb gives the gist of the book:

Over against consumerist worldliness, Bierma urges a worldly Christianity. Christians often dwell on a speculative future existence; we need more realism and seriousness regarding the earthiness of our created condition. Bierma probes the implications of Revelation-inspired visions of a new creation.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Report on 'With a Shout!' Ascension conference

xpost with CICW Worship Weblog

Scott Hoezee began the conference 'With a Shout: What Difference Does the Ascension Make for Everyday Life?' conference with a stirring meditation this morning entitled "Ascension Audacity."

"This is not a day for modest claims," Hoezee said, asserting that to celebrate Christ's ascension is to celebrate his rule over the entire cosmos.

In an equally passionate plenary address following worship, Gerrit Scott Dawson sketched out the significance of the Ascension (introducing Dawson, Smit called his book Jesus Ascended one of the best things she's read on the Ascension--and she's read up on this topic). Dawson said the ascended Christ is like Valjean in Les Miserables, who descends into the sewers of Paris with the wounded Marius on his shoulders, then resurfaces to bring him to a place of healing. "God descends to where we are, enters our filth, finds our mortally wounded humanity, carries us through the sewers of this world, and up to heaven."

The fact that Christ continues to have a bodily existence in heaven, baffling as that is--"you have to admit, the Ascension is bizarre," Dawson said, later calling it "the most challenging intellectual doctrine ever created"--represents an exalting of our humanity, and keeps us from "spiritualizing the Ascension," he said.

Dawson quoted Karl Barth on the Ascension; Barth said Christ's human body was "a clothing he does not put off. It is His temple which He does not leave. It is the form which He does not lose." He also quoted Calvin, whose body was prone to constant ailments and looked to Christ's glorified body in heaven as what we will become after the resurrection of the body:

Although I am weak, there is Jesus Christ ... powerful enough to make me stand.
Although I am feeble, there is Jesus Christ who is my strength.
Although I am full of miseries, Jesus Christ is in immortal glory and what He has will some time be given to me and I shall partake of all His benefits.

Thomas Boogaart then presented the Ascension from an Old Testament perspective. He gave the poignant metaphor of "the road between heaven and earth," a metaphor that encapsulates both the Old and New Testaments--the Israelites, the angels, and the prophets (such as Isaiah in Isaiah 6 and Paul in Acts 8) traveled that road. The end of the road is God's house, where we belong, where we will feast, where we long to be. And so, "the Ascension is not just an idea, it is a way of viewing the world." Seeing ourselves as travelers on that road--and making our own houses as much like God's house as we can, practicing hospitality--is how we live out our witness to Christ's ascension.

That was just the morning! The afternoon continued with plenaries and breakout sessions, many of which will be available soon at the Calvin Seminary audio lecture archive. Also see this Vital Worship feature story and links on the Ascension.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

NT Christians and Empire: 'A Sly Civility'

That's "NT" as in "New Testament," not N.T. Wright, but I draw on Wright's statements about empire on page 170. A special issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament last year on Christians and empire explores this theme. A couple highlights:

A Sly Civility: Colossians and EmpireHarry O. Maier
Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 27, No. 3, 323-349 (2005)

This article relates Colossian vocabulary, motifs and theological themes to the cultural situation of the cult of the emperor. The author’s language and conceptualization of reconciliation as a cosmic and earthly peace (Col.1.15-23) reflects an imperial backdrop and utilizes civic vocabulary typical of Greek and Roman treatments of concord. His representation of Jesus’ death as a Roman triumph (2.15), and the incorporation of all humankind—including barbarians and Scythians—in a trans-ethnic unity (3.11) similarly reflects the geopolitical notions of a worldwide Roman Empire. The imperial imprint on the Household Code (3.18-4.1) is recognizable through attention to numismatic representations of Nero and his consort enjoying a divinely appointed familial concord. Though used by court theologians like Eusebius of Caesarea to legitimate a Christian application of Empire, the letter may be read as a destabilization of Empire inasmuch as it derives imperial-sounding ideals from the crucifixion of Jesus.

Re-mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians
Peter Oakes
Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 27, No. 3, 301-322 (2005)

This article considers three texts that are frequently cited in relation to Rome: 1 Thess. 4.15-17; 1 Thess. 5.3; Phil. 2.9-11. Four options for the apparent parallels between Christian and Roman terminology are considered: (1) independent use of common sources, (2) Christian imitation of elements of Roman discourse or practice, (3) Christian writing in reaction to conflict stemming from Rome and (4) Christian writing that conflicts with Roman discourse or practice. The article concludes that 1 Thess. 5.3 and Phil. 2.9-11 conflict with Roman ideology. However, in neither case is Paul either writing polemic against Rome or specifically arguing against participation in the imperial cult. Instead, he is re-drawing the map of the universe in order to encourage Christians who are suffering under pressure from Graeco-Roman society.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Visit to Shawnee Book Group

On Sunday I met with a book group from Shawnee Christian Reformed Church that had studied my book, at the home of two of the members (coincidentally, just about a quarter mile from the home where I met the Neland book group). The group was made up of older readers, and I was struck by one comment one reader made about my generation. She asked if my generation thought more about heaven and the kind of questions I raise in the book. I said that honestly, I thought my generation was very technology-oriented, and thus less prone to think about the transcendent. She commented that her generation didn't ask these kinds of questions at all; they were more inclined to just accept the doctrine that was handed down to them and not worry about any remaining questions they had. My generation, by comparison, she said, felt free to ask big questions. Readers around the room generally agreed, and some said that this was the first they had thought this long and hard about the afterlife. I had assumed that thinking about the afterlife came a little more naturally as you get older, with some of your biggest life decisions behind you, more more funerals of your friends to attend. I was struck by the potental for discussing heaven in an older generation.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Bookshelf: 'Hope in the Midst of a Hostile World'

New from P&R, my publisher for BHDTE:

Schwab, George M. Hope in the Midst of a Hostile World: The Gospel According to Daniel (The Gospel According to the Old Testament) (P&R Publishing, 2006). [P-A]

Michael Barrett packs some good eschatology into his endorsement:

God reveals the future to affect the present. Prophecy glorifies the One in control, inspires believers’ confidence, intensifies hope for God’s will to be done, and moves people to repentance and holiness. This study of the book of Daniel highlights these essential aspects of prophecy. Given the mysterious symbolism throughout Daniel, not every reader will agree with Schwab’s interpretation of this or that detail. But his focus is clear: God’s absolute control and unrelenting resolve to accomplish his redemptive purpose in Christ should give God’s people in every age ‘hope in the midst of a hostile world.’

Thursday, May 11, 2006

CAS book reception

Yesterday I was honored to be invited to a book reception hosted by the Calvin CAS department for Bob Fortner's new book Radio, Morality, And Culture: Britain, Canada, And the United States 1919-1945 and my book. I majored in CAS at Calvin, and as I said in my remarks at the reception, the CAS professors, course material, and way of framing questions about worldview, culture, and vocation, had a pervasive influence on my faith and on this book. I was also humbled by Quentin Schultze's gracious introduction yesterday, and delighted that I could thank him and Bill Romanowski in particular at this event for their influence on the ideas of this book. I've posted an MP3 of Quin's introduction and my remarks.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Postcard from 'Paradise' in Orlando

Orlando Airport MarriottHere in Orlando (where I'm awaiting the start of EPA '06), I had lunch (and am now writing this entry--score one for wireless Web access) in the hotel restaurant, which goes by the name "Paradise." This allows the servers to invariably greet guests by saying, "Welcome to Paradise." I'll reserve more comment on "paradise" and its connotations of tropical leisure (in addition to what I have in chapter 1) for later. As for the aptness of this name to my dining experience today, all I can say is I enjoyed a side salad the size of an LP record, topped with carrots cut into little curlicues, while I gazed at the palm trees right outside the window (the third and fourth ones on the left, I think, in the picture).

Perversely, I didn't pack short sleeves or sunglasses, so I'll be spending all but a few minutes of my stay here in the airport, the airport shuttle, and the airport Mariott. And thanks to the prevalence of our artificially controlled climates, which I discuss in the introduction to chapter 3, I'll hardly notice the change from the chilly Midwest to central Florida. (Except for the sight of those palm trees.)

Preaching Apocalyptic resources online

Speaking of preaching Revelation, I do hope my book motivates pastors to crack open the often-neglected pages of the last book of the Bible, and commentaries on it. But for the real heavy lifting of exegeting and preaching these thorny texts, be sure to see resources from the Preaching Apocalyptic Texts conference held last year at Calvin Theological Seminary. I helped compile this resource site, which now includes the full text of all plenary addresses and sermons as published in the Calvin Theological Journal.

The opening plenary address by Gordon Fee was entitled "Preaching Apocalyptic? You've Got to Be Kidding!" Fee said his purpose was "to urge you to recapture this great book for the sake of the contemporary church, because here indeed is a biblical book that is not only worth recovering for today's church, it is absolutely crucial that it be heard in our day. Here is a truly prophetic word, spoken with power and insight into a world dominated by a secular power." Fee said his task was to "whet your appetite, create in you a longing to preach and teach" from Revelation, and to offer practical tips for doing so.

May this conference, and the reflections of all of us who have written about Revelation, help inspire the church to rediscover its witness and its future as revealed to John in this “awakening” (apokalypsis) letter.

Update: More here and here.

Visit to Neland Faith and Writing group

This past Thursday I was honored to be invited to join the Neland Church “Faith and Writing” book group, which had interrupted its long to-read list of reputable titles in order to read Bringing Heaven Down To Earth. I grew up at Neland and knew most of the members of the group, and I couldn’t help but think that no matter how many copies the book sells, no matter who reads it (easy for me to say, I’m not in marketing!), I would cherish the feedback of these readers more than most; their positive comments would be the most validating and their critical comments most useful. Sharing a book you’ve written with people you’ve never met is an amazing thought, but sharing it with people in the worshiping community that formed you is most rewarding.

I was right about the quality of both the positive and negative comments from the group. A few members said that while the ideas of the book were fairly familiar to them–-because they shared with me the influences of the Reformed tradition and the writings of the key authors I refer to—-they generally found it a useful, plainspoken overview of these ideas. One member remarked that she could hand this book to a pastor and say, “Preach a sermon series on Revelation” (see this). One member wondered about the exegetical precedent for the ships of Tarshish analysis in chapter 4; I said that I once asked Richard Mouw at a conference in Chicago for his exegetical paper trail on his work on Isaiah 60 in When the Kings, and he told me only that it was largely based on his own reading and reflection. This member also thought I may have left my section on the Rapture too brief, especially since I avoided the premillennial doctrine of the tribulation and thousand-year reign of Christ. I agreed that I could have spent more time directly confronting these tenets of premillennialism, although I had wanted to keep it simple and focus only on the meaning of apentesin, and leave the more thorough debunking of premillennialism and Left Behind to others (Hoekema, and book-length critiques of the LB series, to which Thomas Thompson, a Calvin College professor and cousin of Jerry Jenkins, will notably add his later this year).

I was touched by the warm hospitality of the group (thanks again to Jan for the magnificent spread of tea and snacks), and by their responses to the book, which were both affirming and unsparing. And I’m grateful again for the major influence of the Neland community on my faith and on this book.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

'Coming Home' at LaSalle

Last weekend my wife and I were in Chicago for 'Coming Home,'a reunion of former members of LaSalle Street Church. LaSalle set up a 'Marketplace' room featuring artwork and books by former members, and I enjoyed a spot for BHDTH right next to DVDs of the history of LaSalle. The DVDs, and the books of longtime LaSaller Philip Yancey, drew the most interest, of course, but some attendees were very gracious in their interest in my book. In many ways, the book's main idea--that we shouldn't just sit back and wait for heaven, but should actively await what will be an active eternity--resonates well with LaSalle's bottomless heart for hands-on ministry in downtown Chicago.