The Apostle Paul: A Convert?

Image by Dorothée QUENNESSON from Pixabay

Larry Hurtado writes:

In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance.  At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.”  It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition.  (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)

More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17.  On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.  So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.”  But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.

Saint Augustine on the Beauty of Creation

Childress Creek, near Valley Mills, Texas

Gavin Ortlund has written a really fabulous book on ways Saint Augustine’s thought could inform modern debates on the age of the earth, human origins, original sin, and evolution. Augustine also models intellectual virtue that could inform these debates, and others. The book is called Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy.

Ortlund features several quotes from Augustine’s writings that are too good not to share.

From Sermon 68.5:

Observe the beauty of the world, and praise the plan of the creator. Observe what he made, love the one who made it. Hold on to this maxim above all: love the one who made it, because he also made you, his lover, in his own image.

From Confessions 11.3:

Let me hear and understand the meaning of the words: In the Beginning you made heaven and earth. Moses wrote these words…If he were here, I would lay hold of him and in your name I would beg and beseech him to explain those words to me. I would be all ears to catch the sounds that fell from his lips.

From Sermon 126.6:

Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: “God has made me!”

From City of God 22.24:

Shall I speak of the manifold and various loveliness of sky, and earth, and sea; of the plentiful supply and wonderful qualities of the light; of sun, moon, and stars; of the shade of trees; of the colors and perfume of flowers; of the multitude of birds, all differing in plumage and in song; of the variety of animals, of which the smallest size are often the most wonderful–the works of ants and bees astonishing us more than the huge bodies of whales? Shall I speak of the sea, which itself is so grand a spectacle, when it arrays itself as it were in vestures of various colors, now running through every shade of green, and again becoming purple or blue? Is it not delightful to look at it in storm, and experience the soothing complacency which inspires, by suggesting that we ourselves are not tossed and shipwrecked? What shall I say of the numberless kinds of food to alleviate hunger, and the variety of seasonings to stimulate appetite which are scattered everywhere by nature, and for which we are not indebted to the art of cookery? How many natural appliances are there for preserving and restoring health! How grateful is the alternation of day and night! how pleasant the breezes that cool the air! how abundant the supply of clothing furnished us by trees and animals! Who can enumerate all the blessings we enjoy?

Who indeed?

Ortlund states, “for Augustine, the most important aspect of the doctrine of creation is not its timing or the exact mechanics of how God does it, but rather the more basic ontological distinction it implies: that there are two kinds of reality; that the One is the source and cause of the other; and that the lesser exists in radical dependence upon the greater.” Ortlund adds, “There is not a single area of theology that is unaffected by meditation on the implications of such a vision, and it is unfortunate if we pass by such considerations too quickly in our haste to determine the age of the universe” (p. 66).

Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. We are creatures; God is the creator. This is the foundation for our inquiry, and our wonderment.

Methodist Friends: Come Study at Truett

Portraits, Faculty, Perkins School of Theology, Abraham, William, Perkins Chapel

William J. Abraham is coming to Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

From the press release:

Following extended conversations with and consultation of seminary faculty, alumni and friends, Dean Todd D. Still, Ph.D., announced today, with strong support from university administration, the formation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. In conjunction, he announced that Dr. William J. Abraham, a theologian, philosopher, author and minister, will serve as the founding director of this strategic initiative.

In this role, Abraham will ensure that students attending Truett from Wesleyan traditions are nurtured and networked for the ministries into which they are being called. Additionally, Abraham, who will regularly teach courses at Truett pertaining to Wesleyan thought and practice, will collaborate with individuals, congregations and organizations in the Wesleyan tradition in the recruiting, training and placing of students and in supporting and educating ministers who are already engaged in gospel service.

“From its inception in 1994, Baylor’s Truett Seminary — an orthodox, evangelical school in the historic Baptist tradition embedded into a major research university — has been blessed to train ministerial students primarily, though not exclusively, from baptistic congregations,” said Still, The Charles J. and Eleanor McLerran Delancey Dean and The William M. Hinson Professor of Christian Scriptures. “In recent years, however, Wesleyan students and churches have begun to turn increasingly to Truett as a desirable destination location for theological education. We have, in turn, warmly welcomed these Christian friends into our seminary community, which exists to train God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. The establishment of The Wesley House of Studies at Baylor’s Truett Seminary strengthens further this ongoing practice and places Truett on a trajectory to become an increasingly multidenominational school while holding steadfast and true to its doctrinal and ecclesial commitments.”

A gifted teacher, sought-after lecturer, prolific author and ordained elder in the Methodist Church, Abraham holds degrees from The Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland (BA); Asbury Theological Seminary (M.Div.); and Oxford University, Regent’s Park College (D.Phil.), and has taught at Seattle Pacific University, Harvard Divinity School and Southern Methodist University.

“We are on the cusp of a new day for the future of the Wesleyan network of families across the world,” Abraham said regarding the creation of The Wesley House of Studies at Truett Seminary and his appointment to serve as its founding director. “In order to fulfill the promise in store for us, we urgently need fresh ways of providing the spiritual, practical and intellectual resources that are essential for the work up ahead.

“Baylor University is a world-class institution, and the creation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is a landmark development,” he said. “I can think of no better place to be home to a vibrant Wesley House. I am thrilled to play my part in making it a stellar center of excellence that the Holy Spirit can use for reform, renewal and awakening on a global scale.”

I know I have Methodist friends out there who are discerning a call to theological education. There’s a place for you at Truett. As a bonus, I’ll get to see you, too.

Online Theological Education

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Not everyone is called to seminary or divinity school. In fact, I’ve long contended that the local church is the center of theological education. Everyone can get serious there. I think you can learn more about ministers from the churches they’ve been part of than you can from their educational pedigree.

Nonetheless, institutions are important, and it does make a difference if someone has been trained at a reputable school. Two or three years of intensive theological study helps, and it is true that local churches can be limited in terms of depth, scope, and concentration of study made available. You can learn a great deal in the local church, but it helps when other avenues for learning are available.

Throughout the years I’ve come to know many people who have been well trained in their local church and are excellent leaders. You may be one of those friends, someone whom I consider a saint, a co-laborer in the good work of God’s kingdom. You might not be, too. This website is free and open to the public! You might be someone who found this post with a Google search. Glad to connect! But there’s another possibility (please read the following while imagining me with a wink and a smile): we may only be acquaintances, or someone I’ve been praying for for a long time.

What I’ve learned through experience is that there are those I know who could benefit from further training. We could do a lot in the church, but we couldn’t do it all. With the help of a designated course of study, these leaders would be helped to grow in biblical and theological knowledge, gain some outside perspective, learn pastoral ministry skills, and be better equipped to serve in their local contexts. More education would complement and strengthen what has been and is being received in the local church, and thus, by helping the individual grow, the local church would become stronger.

One of the cool things I learned after joining the staff of Truett Seminary is that we provide a form of online theological education. Truett’s Online Certificate Program is for bi-vocational ministers, congregants who serve as lay-ministers, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, children’s ministers, and other ministry volunteers. The online courses are complemented with a few opportunities each year to receive in-person instruction during short on-campus seminars. David Tate directs the program. He’s great. And they have great staff who help to teach and facilitate these courses.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s me!”, what are you waiting for? Check it out!

Another online option I’m familiar with is the Tony Evans Training Center. I have done curriculum development work for Urban Alternative, and while the TETC isn’t a seminary institution, it does provide opportunities for learning, growth, and online community, with a strong emphasis on the study of Scripture.

Other institutions offer online instruction as well, but these are the ones I know. If you are interested in broadening your biblical and theological knowledge, make a choice and pick your resources, dedicate yourself to the task, and get to work. By God’s grace, the church is strengthened when her servants are in pursuit of a deep, passionate, thoughtful, and active faith. Take the next step.

Theological Work and Wonder

A Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) with Nest

In Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Karl Barth lectures on the existential aspects of theological work, which is firstly distinguished by the disposition of wonder. Barth writes:

The astonishment of the individual carries with it the fact that no one can become and remain a theologian unless he is compelled again and again to be astonished at himself. Last but not least, he must become for himself an enigma and a mystery. (Note bene: the same applies even to those who are taking a minor in theology or who will always remain amateur theologians.) After all, who am I to be a theologian? It does not matter whether I am the best child of the best parents, perhaps having known, like Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15), about the Holy Scriptures from the very time I began to think. It does not matter whether I have the cleverest mind or the most upright heart or the very best of intentions. Who am I to have put such trust in myself as to devote myself even remotely to the task of theology? Who am I to co-operate in this subject, at least potentially and perhaps quite actively, as a minor researcher, thinker, or teacher? Who am I to take up the quest for truth in the service and in the sense of the community, and to take pains to complete this quest? I have put such trust in myself as soon as I touch theology even with my little finger, not to speak of occupying myself with it more or less energetically or perhaps even professionally. And if I have done that, I have without fail become concerned with the new event and the miracle attested to by the Bible. This miracle involves far more than just the young man at Nain or the captain of Capernaum and their companions of whom the Gospels tell; far more than the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea, the wilderness, and the Jordan; far more than the sun that stood still upon Joshua’s command at Gibeon. I have become involved in the reality of God that is only signaled by all those things. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who reveals himself in his Son through the Holy Spirit, who desired to be the God of man so that man might live as his man. I have become involved in the wonder of this God, together with all its consequences for the world and for each and every man. And whatever, however, and whoever I may be in other respects, I have finally and profoundly become a man made to wonder at himself by this wonder of God. It is another question whether I know what self-wonderment means for me, whether I am ready and able to subordinate my bit of research, thought, and speech to the logic of this wonder (and not in reverse order!). But there can be no question about one fact: I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the living God. This confrontation occurs in even the most timid and untalented attempt to take seriously the subject which I have become involved or to work theologically at all, whether in the field of exegesis, Church history, dogmatics, or ethics.

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, p. 61-62

What flows from wonder? Humility. Praise. Joy.

Notice Barth applies dispositions of astonishment and wonder to all who would try their hand and heart and head to the task of theology: “the same applies even to those who are taking a minor in theology or who will always remain amateur theologians.” Whether a theologian is a doctor of the church or a person in the pew, “I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the living God.” One and all, together we ask, “Who am I?”

In Barth’s wider corpus, it would seem that to ask “Who am I?” is only possible in response to a prior question, “Who is God?”, a question that cannot be asked apart from revelation. Theology is response. Contemplation of the question, “Who is God?” broadens and expands the possibilities for our answer to the question, “Who am I?” Barth’s wonderment, captured above, is only possible if the answer to “Who is God?” has resulted in the conclusion that the truth about God is something magnificent, expansive, and unimaginably overwhelming, an understanding which is so very small in comparison to its totality that the little that we do grasp is like that of beholding a dewdrop in light of the ocean, or that of a sunbeam in its relationship to the sun.

Barth writes elsewhere that “the God who is the object of evangelical theology is just as lowly as he is exalted. He is exalted precisely in his lowliness.” It is this lowly God who appoints us, human beings, to serve God humbly, and as we serve to exalt that same God rightly, to honor his name as that name which is above all names.

This wonder becomes lost when we mistakenly lose sight of God as God is, and mistakenly exalt human beings (especially theologians!) to a position higher than is fitting for our station as creatures, rather than Creator. The question, “Who am I?”, rightly understood, aligns us with the prophet Isaiah who when found in the presence of God exclaimed, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

After this proclamation, the response of the heavenly host is one of lowliness, atonement, preparation and equipping, and, subequently, of calling:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Isaiah 6:6-7

The next statement from the throne is a summons: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

Isaiah responds, “Here am I. Send me!”

This call and response continues to issue forth to each one of us. “Who am I?” “Who is God?” It is this very God who has called this very I to do this very work, with wonder.

Paul W. Powell: Learning from the Long Walk

I was crawling through the Truett Seminary chapel archives and came across a message from Paul W. Powell, offered November 5, 2013. Here is a link to the video, and here is a link to the audio. I wish I had an easy way to embed the files, but Baylor’s hosting service doesn’t provide code I can easily integrate into my site. The message is titled, “Learning from the Long Walk.”

Acts 2:14-36, The Paul W. Powell Chapel at Truett Seminary

Brother Paul was pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas for seventeen years, my home church. Paul baptized me and, years later, preached the charge on the occasion of my ordination on April 10, 2005 at the First Baptist Church of Allen, Texas, pastored then and now by the Reverend Chad Selph. Paul died at the age of 83 in December of 2016.

While digging around the internet doing a little bit of background research on Paul, I came across a 2005 “Pastoral Letter” he wrote while serving as Dean of the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Here’s a quick story he told:

Baptists are people of the Book. The Bible is the rule and guide for our faith and practice. We have a Baptist Faith and Message, but it is not a creed. No one has to sign it; no one is forced to subscribe to it. It is simply a statement of what Baptists generally believe.

We claim no creed but the Bible. Several years ago Richard Jackson gave me a Bible that had embossed on the front of it in gold letters, “The Baptist Faith and Message.” He had it right.

One more reason I will continue to be a fan of Paul’s.

Scroll up and listen to his message. It’s gold.

A Good Word from Mark Bailey

Mark Bailey is the President of Dallas Theological Seminary, where I was a student from 2002 to 2005. Dr. Bailey has served DTS as president for nineteen years, and will transition into the chancellor role on June 30. He will be succeeded by Dr. Mark Yarbrough on July 1, 2020.

On behalf of the seminary, Dr. Bailey issued a letter to the DTS family on Thursday, June 4 in response to events in my nation in these last days. He stated:

A Prayer and a Plea for Our Nation
Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. (Proverbs 14:34)

Dear DTS Family:

As we watch the news and see our city streets in turmoil, my heart, like many of yours, aches. We all yearn for righteousness and peace. All Christians should feel extremely bothered, hurt, and righteously angered over the recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, not to mention all others who have needlessly died due to racial injustices and systemic racism. In many ways, the heart cry of the prophet Habakkuk expresses much of our current frustrations:

How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, “Violence!” yet You do not save. Why do You make me see iniquity, and cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; strife exists and contention arises. Therefore the law is ignored and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice comes out perverted. (Hab 1:1-4).

Racism is a grievous sin, resulting in systemic oppression, and does not display our Lord’s heart. It is demonic, and we, as the body of Christ, are called to stand against it. While equal treatment and justice are American values that we proclaim, too often they are not experienced by all people.

At Dallas Theological Seminary, we denounce racism and all forms of racial injustice (DTS Statement on Unity Diversity and Community) and continue to learn how to live that out in practical and proactive ways.

Jesus commanded each of us to “treat others as you would like to be treated” (Luke 6:31). Openly speaking up for the marginalized and mistreated is a mandate found throughout the Bible. Proverbs 31:8-9 states, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” The abuse of power creates chaos at every level of a culture. The words of James 2 also echo in our ears, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

Proverbs 29:2 explains, “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” The world continues to witness the groans of hurting people. Throughout our history, those who should speak do not say enough in defense of those who are oppressed because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity. The unheard groans of oppression eventually lead to more suffering, grief, unrighteousness, and unfortunately, human vengeance. The family of DTS, as the body of Christ, collectively repents for the ways we do not honor Christ’s mandate and image Him well. We collectively mourn with our brothers and sisters who experience the damaging oppression of racism and live in fear as a part of their daily experience. We also join the voices of those protesting peacefully who have rightly denounced the violence and vandalism that distracts from the root issues.

If we want to see a decrease in social unrest, the church of Jesus Christ needs to lead out and speak up against all injustice and unrighteousness. “Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law.” (Prov. 29:18). We must model righteous anger and seek productive ways to join the protest against racism. We must seek the Lord and pursue innovative ways to bring change. History teaches us that God is honored, and change happens, when ministers and faith leaders are at the front of the charge, guiding the way. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us to “… seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Our words can’t adequately speak healing and comfort to the centuries of injustices people have faced here and abroad, but the Word of God can. Our apologies may come across to some as hollow and self-serving; our goal at DTS remains to teach truth and love well. We desire to continue to grow in love, to bear the image of Christ better, and to reach our neighbors with the healing and love the Gospel of Christ brings. Please continue to pray as we move forward as God’s instruments of healing and change.

Three of our distinguished alumni have recently spoken about the events happening in our nation. I invite you to listen:

Prayerfully,

Mark L. Bailey, PhD
DTS President

I reflected on these same matters Friday in my eNewsletter. In 2002, my decision to attend Dallas Seminary was largely discerned in connection to my love of the Scriptures. I wanted to know the Bible, and DTS seemed to be the place where I could learn to do that best. I continue to value Dallas Seminary’s commitment to the Bible.

Dr. Bailey’s letter is thoroughly biblical. His response is rooted in the witness of the Word of God. I also received his words as being offered in humility, in grief, and in love. For that, I am deeply thankful. Dr. Bailey reminded me that as an ambassador for Christ I am called to live according to what is true and to evidence those commitments through love. As a minister of the gospel, I am called to do so with courage.

Acts of love include the commitment to pray and to listen. Prayer is not passive, but active, and is a first response. Listening, also, is an action.

But the question before us remains: “How do we serve as God’s instruments of healing and change?” What does God’s Word call us to do? How does the church exercise obedience to the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, and how does this take shape in our nation at this moment in time? That’s a matter for discernment. We need wisdom.

In Isaiah 1:17 we are commanded: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I find it significant that justice is described as something we are to seek and to do. Seeking leads to doing. But then, once done, seek. With justice, we are always on the way. Christian hope offers us a vision for what we are seeking, for on the day of Christ, our quest for justice will reach its end. Until then, we wait, we long, we cry out, we work. Pray. Listen. Discern. Act. Explore the options, consider them with God, and then do what is right. As an individual, act. Better yet, bind yourself to the church; let’s be the people God has always called us to be.

On the Stage

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Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

We tell stories. We live by them. And we’re part of one.

Human beings are story-bound. We rely on stories to give us meaning, identity, and purpose. As our lives unfold, we see ourselves as part of a narrative and expect the plot to make sense. We often assume that we are driving the action, writing the next chapter. While we do have agency, there are moments when the story gets away from us, when suddenly we’re at a loss. We do not know where things are going next.

C. S. Lewis addressed this notion, that we are story-bound. He observed that our controlling story is that things get better, for a time. Then, things fall apart. We emphasize the part where things get better, and act as though that is all there is to the story. Lewis calls this the myth of progress. This story remains with us. And Lewis names how certain overarching stories (like progress) can keep us from tending to the story of God.

No one is looking at world history without some preconception in favor of progress could find in it a steady up gradient. There is often progress within a given field over a limited period. A school of pottery or painting, a moral effort in a particular direction, a practical art like sanitation or shipbuilding, may continuously improve over a number of years. If this process could spread to all departments of life and continue indefinitely, there would be “progress” of the sort our fathers believed in. But it never seems to do so. Either it is interrupted (by barbarian irruption or the even less resistible infiltration of modern industrialism) or else, more mysteriously, it decays. The idea which here shuts out the Second Coming from our minds, the idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. And it is a myth which distracts us from our real duties and our real interest. It is our attempt to guess the plot of a drama in which we are the characters. But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producers, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are “on” concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it.

– C. S. Lewis, via Bible Gateway

Lewis’ observation that we are only characters, and not the playwright, producer, or audience, is indeed a powerful one. He writes, “We are on the stage.” Our challenge is to play our part now, for in our present moment, we are “on.” We may have a sense of where the story is going, but the twists and turns, highs and lows, they remain hidden from us. Yes, we have agency. We have responsibility. We even have power. But knowing what kind of agency, responsibility, and power is what enables us to play our parts well.

This past week I read “Act III, Scene ii,” a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, which turned my thoughts to Lewis. She writes:

Someone has altered the script.
My lines have been changed.
The other actors are shifting roles.
They don’t come on when they’re expected to,
and they don’t say the lines I’ve written
and I’m being upstaged.
I thought I was writing this play
with a rather nice role for myself,
small, but juicy
and some excellent lines.
But nobody gives my cues
and the scenery has been replaced.
I don’t recognize the new sets.
This isn’t the script I was writing.
I don’t understand this plot at all.
To grow up
is to find
the small part you are playing
in this extraordinary drama
written by somebody else.

– From The Weather of the Heart

This reflects my theological journey. Once, I believed myself to be an author. Then, I discovered I was a character. I was playing a part, and God was the playwright. My part is very small. The story however, is very large, far larger than anything I can envision or imagine. But it is a glorious honor to have been placed on the stage, to have been written into the play.

But What Does it All Mean?

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Photo by Nicole Avagliano on Pexels.com

In our age of streaming services and binge watching, a couple of years ago I churned through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show debuted in 1987, when I was eight years old. There are one hundred and seventy eight episodes. The series finale was in 1994.

I can’t tell you when I first saw TNG. But I’m certain that in my teenage years I’d watch late night reruns, so I became familiar with Jean Luc-Picard, Will Riker, Worf, Geordi, Data, Troi, and Dr. Crusher. I admired Patrick Stewart as Picard, a character who is always alert, curious, insightful, and measured. Independent. A pioneer. Analytical. Courageous. I’m a science fiction fan, and of the vast array of explorers, oddballs, and heroes in the genre, Picard is among my favorites.

The second episode of the fifth season is entitled “Darmok,” and it is there that Picard displays his most vital strengths.¹ The Enterprise comes in contact with an alien race called the Tamarians, known to The United Federation of Planets, but, as of yet, unallied. (BTW: Anytime I think of the Federation, The Refreshments’ nod in “Banditos” always comes to mind.)

Communication with the Tamarians has proven to be very difficult, as the aliens communicate using a complex array of metaphor and allegory.  Though Picard and the crew of the Enterprise seem to speak simply to the Tamarians, they remain misunderstood.² Without shared reference points, it is impossible to build a bridge.

Picard is undettered. The Tamarian captian, Dathon, and Picard are transported down to the planet’s surface. Dathon holds two daggers, and presents one to Picard, which he interprets as a challenge to a duel. But this is not what Dathon has in mind. Dathon repeats the phrases, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and “Temba, his arms wide” several times to Picard, who remains befuddled. But eventually, it begins to dawn on Picard that Dathon is trying to tell him a story, and to indicate that both are being pursued by an invisible predator who is seeking to kill them both. Dathon wants Picard to help him  fight the beast.

From there, things go off the rails. Just at the moment that Picard and Dathon are fighting the beast, the Enterprise overcomes a field array that was preventing them from beaming Picard back on board. As Picard is taken away, Dathon is severely wounded. Picard returns to tend Dathon’s wounds. The two continue their attempts at conversation, and Picard begins to deduce that Darmok and Jalad were two ancient warriors in Tamarian folklore who joined forces on an island called Tanagra to defeat a dangerous beast. In the process, Darmok and Jalad became friends. Picard makes a connection to The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian text from ancient Mesopotamia. Dathon is gladdened by Picard’s insight, and seems to affirm the connection. Shortly thereafter, Dathon dies.

When Picard returns to the Enterprise, his crew and those aboard the Tamarian vessel are locked in battle. Having brought back the daggers from the planet, Picard offers one to the acting captain of the alien vessel, and references the story. It becomes clear to the Tamarians that a breakthrough has occurred, that Picard is offering them friendship, and that an effort has been made to establish diplomatic relations. Both ships stand down. The Tamarians record a new story, “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.”³

Is this a weird story? Sure! Is it metaphorical and allegorical? Absolutely! Does it capture something that resonates with human experience? Undoubtedly. Is it true? Undeniably.

As a Christian person, I have a narrative. So do my neighbors. At times, the Christian story and those of my neighbors overlap. In those instances, connections can be made. But work always has to be done. Both parties have to participate. At times, sacrifices are willfully made in order to bring two divided groups to a place of mutual understanding.

Metaphors bridge the gap, often through stories that reach the grand scale of myth. When we are seeking answers to questions about what it means to be human together, propositions can carry us a good distance, if we have enough common reference points. But stories offer us another way of seeing. They open portals to common understanding. They create worlds with enough room for both parties to stake out ground, and to establish what is held in common.

Picard, in many ways, displays the best characteristics of an effective missionary. He is inquisitive, curious, and determined. He listens. He is persistent. He is willing to enter into frustration and confusion. Lastly, he is driven by hope–a hope that where there was once two people, it is possible that they can be made one.

There’s something biblical about that notion.


  1. Here’s a nice write up of the episode by Ian Bogost of The Atlantic.
  2. This YouTube video will give you a taste of how difficult it would be to connect with the Tamarians.
  3. The full episode is available to those who have CBS All Access (membership required) or Amazon Prime.

Meaning Makers

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Photo by Krivec Ales on Pexels.com

It’s kind of striking that in asking and answering the question at the head of these reflections [“What do you make of all this?”] each of us is channeling, more or less unknowingly, a mass of assumptions about anthropology, ontology, teleology, providence and the doctrine of God. And it is for this reason that the other interesting aspect of the question comes into focus. Since these various so-called “intellectual” assumptions are operating as we see and reflect on our experience in the world, they touch rock bottom (an insufficiently foundationalist metaphor to be sure) upon our creatureliness or our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness. Our making meaning or making sense or making something out of a tough situation is an aspect of our participation in the triune God who made us. Making meaning out of our experience, imaginatively looking for links and drawing out significance, brings about newness: a new view of whatever situation, yes, but more than that, a new person, insofar as we are no longer who we were before this experience and act of making meaning, but also a new opportunity for meaning-making for those who interact with our meaning-making (and, depending on the strength or weakness of your Pneumatology, this type of meaning-making could be classed as revelation).

I’ve had a front row seat to this act of making meaning in the midst of our COVID-19 crisis by dialoging with some really faithful and wise Christians, both in my role at the CPT but more generally as I’ve interacted with my Christian community in my home and on Zoom, iMessage, WhatsApp, FaceTime or whatever. The instinct on display in these conversations is to broaden the field of vision, quickly moving to speaking about…

  • the benefits of this situation for families, who sadly don’t get a lot of regular time together, but are now having meals together, learning together through “home schooling”, playing together and worshiping together;

  • or the helpful by-product of being, in some cases, forced to utilize technology for our churches, often causing those previously opposed to streaming and other various approaches to soften a bit, at least as an emergency measure to accommodate Christian worship of some kind;

  • or the joy of realizing that something as routine as going to church each week is indeed, once it’s taken away, a gift to be received rather than simply reducing it to an aspect of routine;

  • or the salutary awareness of the possibility of some kind of national unity as countries work together to contain and prevent the spread of the virus;

  • or – for pastors – some welcome perspective, reacquainting them with the basic elements of their pastoral vocation, weaning them away from the excess that, barnacle-like, attaches to pastoral ministry and church life over time;

We make meaning; that’s what we do as humans.

– Jameson Ross at The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Making Meaning

Jameson Ross is saying that human beings seek patterns and attempt to establish coherence, to make order from chaos. We are map makers. For Christians, our meaning making incorporates elements which are invariably drawn together from our theological convictions, which is why it is so vital for us to have sound and well measured doctrines of God, of anthropology, and other subdisciplines. But meaning making does not operate in isolation. There is also a transformative aspect of this process. As beings situated within history it is not only the events themselves that shape us, but what we make of those events. We narrate, and as we do so, by God’s grace we learn, change and grow.

I pulled this quote primarily for the items Ross chose to bullet, for I think all five observations are accurate and worthy of thought. [Visit the article for his handling of the reflexive (and refining) critiques of these benefits.] Our family is enjoying our time together, the institutions I serve (both church and university) are learning and gaining further expertise in the use of technology, my fellow congregants are expressing love for one another and a longing to be together again, there is a sense among friends that America is a wonderful place to be, and (oh Lord, I hope!) I have pastor friends who are reconnecting with the most essential and vital aspects of pastoral ministry. The showy stuff has been put aside, and we’re being stripped down to extending care, listening, gently and humbly offering the Word, creatively meeting needs, expressing concern for our neighbors (entire communities; not only congregants) and, of greatest importance, I have witnessed a renewed emphasis on prayer.

As for the meaning making I’ve been engaged in, I’ve been reminded that I am very small and the world is a very large, that God is beyond my comprehension (yet God is personal; not beyond knowledge), that life is very fragile, that I am thankful for a place, that I am temporal and daily passing away, death is an enemy, that kindness is paramount, that the fellowship of the saints is a gift, that the gospel is a comfort and a source of power, and…that’s enough for now. Those are just a few.