Monday, October 18, 2004

Another Holy Friendship

These are some thoughts I put together a couple of weeks ago. I post them now in homage to another of my good friends. My friends of all stripes are forcing me to think through all kinds of issues of faith and "spirituality." I rejoice in my good fortune -- and take the opportunity to crow about the high quality of my social circle.

Since I undertook this journal with the honest assertion of self-aggrandizement, I allow myself this opportunity to celebrate and boast of another holy friendship. (In the “Acknowledgements” to my M.S. thesis, I said something like “An acknowledgements statement is an author’s way of boasting of the quality of the company he keeps.” That’s what’s going on here – although I hasten to add that the sentiments I express are genuine.)

Bjoern spent a couple of days with my family and me (truth to tell, much more time with me than with my family) as a kind of time of farewell. He is leaving his parish in South Dakota to move to Washington state to accept a new call. He came 4-1/2 hours (each way) to give us a little time together, for which I am very grateful. It was a time to confirm that distance will not separate us, and it was a time to spend some “quality time” together, affording an opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in something we both love – viz., talking about theology (and a little politics, too).

Bjoern is a pastor of the ELCA, although he was born and raised in Germany and is a German citizen. That means that he has a really fine accent. (I am a sucker for accents -- German, Scandinavian, and Greek especially.)nHe also has a keen mind (and knows far more than he ought to at his tender age) and a way of coming right to the point in a discussion. That makes conversation a little daunting, but he is also a whale of a lot of fun to be with (although his wit is so wry that it is often two minutes after he comes out with a line that I realize he was joking). He is reflective and eager to both educate and learn (which explains the length of some of our conversations this week.

Bjoern also has as clear a vocation and dedication to parish ministry as I have detected in anyone. He shows himself dearly to love being a pastor, and what is even more important to me, he “gets” the importance of being a pastor to people. He is a theologian, a preacher, a presider, a teacher, a counselor – but he is not a parish administrator or a congregation’s CEO. He has an amazing ability to “liturgize” his parishioners’ faith – rightly recognizing both the need for and the relevance of various rites and offices (some of which he composes) to “contextualize” his ministry. So, in his rural parish, he has celebrated mass under a tent (because an anniversary celebration attracted more people than could be accommodated in the church building and he didn’t want anyone to be relegated to the basement or another over-flow room); he has celebrated on a farm to raise prayers for a good growing season. Insights in how to bring the people’s faith to an existential expression simply flow from him. It’s quite exciting to hear him talk.

Well, while he was here, I was scheduled to go to my class on the Book of John’s Revelation (Apocalypse), so Bjoern accompanied me. We shared a Bible, and there were times our heads were inches apart as we both poured over a text with Prof. Koester to discern its structure and meaning. As we did so, I glanced over at him once and felt much the same warmth, satisfaction, solidarity, and security from sharing the faith as I had in my eucharist with Jim (see an earlier post). There seemed such a fittingness that I was able to share the Word of God with this brother in the faith, with whom I had discussed the faith, the Church, the foolishness of humanity until 3:00 that same morning.

As a Lutheran, I am well-trained in the “Word and Sacrament” construction. They are not two separate emphases in the faith. Both carry the presence of God; both are meant to take place together. And in both, are we brought to a sense of oneness with the rest of the Body of Christ. Some members of that Body are closer, physically and emotionally, than others. But both are “means of grace” – bearers of the certainty and the experience of God’s grace. Because that grace is relational, it is not at all unusual or untoward that participation in hearing and studying the Word and meeting the Lord in his Supper or in the waters of Baptism (or in the blessings of Marriage, for my money) brings the parties to a sense of community. And when one is able to join that sense of community with one’s close friendship and love for those integral to his life, there is almost a sense of ecstasy (and I’m not inclined toward mysticism).

I think this says something about what faith is, how it operates in our lives, what it feels like. And I think what it says is not often attended to in Lutheranism. We rightly experience a sense of mystery-personified about and in life in the Church. It matters “existentially” (one of Bjoern’s favorite words). This is something that many of the saints have taught us: Francis and Clare
, Benedict and Scholastica, and such (and notice that the examples I cite do not involve lovers). We are brought more deeply into relationships with loved ones on earth when that love is lived out in the context of the Church’s life – worship, Bible study, celebration of the sacraments, service to those in need. And contextualizing those relationships by that joint involvement in the life of the Church is just so also sacramental.

This, at least, is what I “knew” while I was with Bjoern over the Bible, sharing some wine and food, praying. I am most sincerely touched and grateful for his gesture of grace and love.

I shall miss having in the (relatively speaking) neighborhood. But I know that I shall know his presence in my prayers and in the mass, when I gather with the saints of today and of yore -- all the saints present in various ways.

A Second Round with Apocalypse -- Now

OK, Br. RAR (or is that Br’rar?), this one is for you: Tonight is my final class on Revelation (the Apocalypse) of St. John, and I shall miss these Monday classes – as well as my self-disciplined preparation for them. I have learned an enormity; I have gained a new teacher in Prof. Craig Koester; I have a valuable addition to my library in his book REVELATION AND THE END OF ALL THINGS.

Tonight, we finally get around to Armageddon (actually, we dealt with that last week, too) and the New Jerusalem. In anticipation of the class, I set out a couple of my insights from my reading in the Apocalypse and in Koester’s book. (These are not original ideas of my own, although Prof. Koester should not be blamed for them. His book has helped lead me to where I end up, but I’m not claiming that he intended that I should arrive where I land.)

I am excited – and, justly, horrified – to realize that the battle of Armageddon is a present realty. You’d think that all my training in law and gospel in Lutheran theology would have taught me that. And, to be sure, I have always recognized the on-going, current struggle of faith. But I have never seriously read the Apocalypse to realize that that is its insight, too. And my great interest is “eschatology” has not, so far, led me to the Apocalypse of St. John – which I tended to dismiss as “apocalyptic” versus “eschatological” preaching. So I am embarrassed that my training is so narrow.

To some extent, the apocalyptic crowd – Hal Lindsey, the LEFT BEHIND folks, and how many others? – are correct: Apocalyptic battles are already occurring. To the extent that even the most problematic interpreters of the Apocalypse raise that alarum, they are correct. To the extent that they anticipate only a future and final battle somewhere beyond historical time, they do not carefully read the book, I think.

In John’s visions, the battles between the forces of evil – symbolized by Satan, the beast, the dragon, the harlot – and the force (note my deliberate use of the singular) of righteousness occur even as we read the book. But these battles are not military battles in the sense that we ordinarily – and especially in this time of the “war” on terror – take. I am surprised to have pointed out to me (because I have never recognized the fact) that the ONLY weapon carried by the force of righteousness is the sword that issues from the mouth of Christ – in other words, not a “weapon” at all, but the Word of God. The weapon of righteousness is not a literal sword – let alone a tank or a missile or a nuclear bomb – but is the proclamation of the Word – i.e., the reality and will – of God. It was proclaimed originally by Messiah Jesus, and is now announced by his successor prophet-proclaimers, the Church.

The contemporaneity of the great battle(s) is mightily important, as is demonstrated by the juxtaposition of the opening chapters (the letters to the churches) with all the battle scenes. What is the scene of the battles – even of the great, culminating battle at Har Megiddo? It is the local parish setting – i.e., up close and personal to the lives of believers. What is the cause of the conflict – i.e., over what is the battle fought? It is lackadaisical faith commitment, consumerism, too much accommodation to (indeed, assimilation into) the surrounding culture. Those are battles facing the Church in every place and every age. And to that extent, at least, the Church in every age is in the final conflict for the “end of history.” (For that reason, I wonder – and perhaps Koester will deal with this – whether Armageddon is not so much a picture of one final-and-for-all-time as it is a symbol for the great, current, existential battle that the community of faith in a particular time and place faces for itself. And, on this view, then, Armageddon is not one battle, but several throughout history.)

Prof. Koester speaks beautifully of the “end” of history. He helped me to see that we must use the word “end” carefully and deliberately. For the Apocalypse deals with the end of history, not in the sense of “end” as conclusion, but in the sense of “end” as goal, as “telos,” as fulfillment. History’s “end” is not a nuclear explosion – which could very well bring the history of the earth to a temporal end, I admit. History’s “end” – i.e., its goal or its point or its fulfillment – is in the gathering of the tribes and nations to worship “around the glassy sea.” John’s concern, then, is not to forecast or describe how the earth’s history will cease, but it is to describe how the Creator’s work of art is fulfilled when faithful recipients of his grace offer their praise and worship. Today, then, can as well be the end of history as some future point (whether vague or pinpointed). For Christians who place their ultimate trust in God-revealed-in-Messiah, history has – in a penultimate sense – reached its end, even if it does not stop.

When I gather with my congregation to sing God’s praises and to meet him face-to-face in the Eucharist, history has “ended” – i.e., be fulfilled. That there will be some final fulfillment beyond the contemporary is suggested by the language of the “first” and “second” resurrection. I’m not sure that that is an apt way to read that passage, so I have a question in mind for tonight’s class. For me, however, it fits.

A natural implication to draw from that is the recognition that Christians are not called to be violent participants in some kind of armed conflict (in the sense that the world understands that) – or even to relish the idea of violent Goetterdaemerungen. Rather, Christians are called to be non-violent resisters to the evil which the Word of God takes on – suffering servants, proclaimers and trusters of the Word of God, witnesses by their resolution to the faithfulness of God who promises not to abandon us. As I noted earlier, the armies of heaven are not armed, but merely (?) accompany the One who rides the White Horse. Those who face battle are not called to do battle, but to resist – to wear their white robes (bleached by the suffering of Christ) and to resist forces of violence, nihilism, hedonism, economic misdeeds, sexualism, “modernism,” less-than-seriousness, and all the other problems identified in the book as the works of the antagonists of God.

When I first met Stanley Hauerwas – one of the most combative and consistent pacifist theologians one is likely to meet or read – he autographed one of his books to me, encouraging me to faithful service in the “Army of God.” I questioned his use of a military term to refer to the life of faith. He responded that the people of God ought not to let others set the terms of discourse or to claim exclusive right to the use of certain well-established terms in the Christian lexicon. His point was that the Scriptures (especially the New Testament) speak of the army of God without in any sense intending to portray them as militarists. While there is a war to be fought, the weapons of that war are not swords, guns, or missiles; rather, the weapons are the Word of God (on our part, at least). I now see that he has a most apt apocalyptic view of the life of faith.

It was that that encounter with Hauerwas that set me to rethinking my feelings about the BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC. Last week, Prof. Koester made much of that hymn. He pointed out that that hymn is really just a retelling of the Battle of Armageddon (more evidence that the Church best sings some of her theology). But even before hearing him say that, I had “rehabilitated” the hymn for my soul, with its warrior and conflict imagery, for the Church’s use. (Actually, I WAS REHABILITATED for the singing of the hymn by Prof. Hauerwas.. And, because the hymn’s call for and reassurance of justice has always gripped me in the voicebox and tear duct when I sing it, I am happy for the transformation.) Knowing that by singing the hymn, I am singing the Book of the Apocalypse makes it just that much better.

Resistance – the modus operandi of the Church – is exercised in numerous ways, I suppose. (That would make a really good topic for a series of adult fora in congregations: How can we avoid the Spirit’s indictments of the seven congregations at the beginning of the Apocalypse?) But military might (including individual armaments) is not one of them. On this I think the testimony of the Apocalypse is clear: Christ’s word is the sword; faith is the defensive breastplate; love is the battle plan – strategic and tactical.

That insight feels delightful: It confirms my political stance against Star Wars missile defenses, against apocalyptic-inspired warmaking (sometimes called “preventive war”), against reliance on military might for our “defense” (a political position I arrived at primarily on the witness of the Sermon on the Mount, but which now seems to have an even broader base). In the Church, promoting and/or justifying war, et. al., ought to be out-of-bounds thinking, so Christians ought also to vote against the same, I think. Blood-stained uniforms are not the dress of Christians – white linen baptismal gowns are. Only Messiah wears a blood-stained alb, and his is stained with his own blood, not that of his victims – sacrificial blood, not defensive-wound blood. (After reading this book, the Church ought to reflect on Lady Macbeth’s lesson: The stain of unrighteousness blood is indelible. And I have to say that I never expected to invoke the good – er, bad – Lady in any theological reflection!)

Just-war thinking: Are you next for the indictment of the Spirit?

In any event, thank you, Professor-brother Craig, if you happen to read this. You have excited me in a long-neglected (at least by me) aspect of the faith – one I shall be working on for a long time.

This last book in the Bible is a beautiful thing. We ought all to know it better. Happy reading, brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Grammar of Faith

I know this drum gets beaten all the time, but I need to give it a couple of whacks today.

As a lawyer, I receive way too many announcements, via e-mail and snail mail, of continuing education events. (You lose your license if you don't stay current through cont. ed.) Today I received one entitled "Defending Domestic Crimes." I don't know whether to laugh or fume (actually, I've done both with colleagues).

Lawyers are word people: That's how we make our living. Whether those words appear on paper or in oral form, those words are what we do. Consequently, one expects lawyers to have some sense of the local language (in this case, English, although a smattering of law French and Latin come in handy, I suppose). People of words ought not so molest thought as to misrepresent what they intend to say. And that is what the announcement did.

The announcement meant to say (and for this I rely on the blurb for the seminar)is that this is a seminar in how to be effective in representing people who have been accused of domestic crimes -- e.g., domestic violence. Instead, the seminar title announced a rather scandalous promotion of domestic crimes -- perhaps justifying them or encouraging people to do them.

A perfectly good way to say what the sponsors intended would have been "Defending against claims of domestic crimes." Oh sure, it adds three words and may not be as pithy as the original, but the difference in meaning added by those words is immense. I expect better. (And much as I am tempted to attend the seminar to see what's actually offered, I shall not; my ethics do not allow it. I don't encourage false advertising.)

Lamentably, this incident simply highlights something that most lawyers know: Lawyers are very poor wordsmiths; they are negligent in what matters most -- the way in which they get their ideas and arguments across.

Such a lament is appropriate to the Church, too. For the people of faith are often poor wordsmiths, and that failing is significant.

We Christians are people of the Word: Indeed, our Savior was God's own Word incarnate. As the contemporary Body of Christ, we share in that Wordiness. The issue is communication and the relationships that make communication possible. As a consequence, words matter -- and the way we put those words together matters. (Remember the second commandment: I think its tentacle reach into the very nature of our use of language, implicating our vocabulary and grammar in the life of faith.)

It seems that grammar is not now considered important. In schools, there is not much emphasis on it -- and the practical effects run to near incomprehensibility when students write. (It doesn't matter how it's phrased if you know what is intended -- that's what we're often told. Well, that is simply rubbish.) Preachers-to-be are not taught grammar and their errors are not corrected. Lousy sentence structure, faulty connections, subject-verb disagreement, shallow vocabularies -- these are passed off as less important than the "meaning." But there is no meaning without the rest; that's much of what the Incarnation taught us. (In fact, Marshall McLuan gave us an evangelical hermeneutical tool with his aphorism: The medium is the message.)

A current bestseller makes an impassioned plea for renewed attention to punctuation (EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES). Of at least similar import is grammar. Read the book and laugh -- or hold your head in misery. Then listen to your preacher: Correct him or her, ask him or her about the language of the sermon. And watch your own tongue.

The Word became flesh, and that makes our language a meaty thing.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Music Criticism

Now for something completely different: I spent Friday evening simply enjoying myself with no responsibility for anyone else (my daughter was out and my wife was writing a paper for one of her graduate courses, so I was left to my own devices). I sat in my easy chair next to the amplifier and popped CDs in and out while I alternately listened intently and read with the music in the background. The music I chose was Richard Strauss' FOUR LAST SONGS, and I am confirmed in my opinion that it is simply the most fantastic music for voice and orchestra in the repertoire.

The SONGS were composed toward the end of Maestro Strauss' life, and together they constitute a meditation on the end of life. (Three of the songs are on texts by Hermann Hesse; the fourth Hesse song was never completed because of Strass' death. The fourth, on a text of an author whose name has escaped me, was added by the publisher to complete the cycle. It turns out to be a good decision -- both for profits and for musicality.) It is not maudlin, although it is romantic (what do you expect with Hesse?). I wouldn't mind hearing BEIM SCHLAFENGEHEN (on going to sleep) as I lay on my death bed. In fact, these four songs really help place life and death in proper proportion. It's quite sermonic!

I started collecting reocrdings of the SONGS twenty years ago, so now I have about ten or eleven different recordings of the piece (most on CD, some on vinyl and CD, but one or two still on vinyl only -- which I much perfer for the depth and warmth of sound), and I simply played through some of them, comparing the various interpretations, tempi, fluidity of line, and tonal qualities of the singers. And I played through the piece as sung by one diva, and then replaced it with another. And so it went for more than a couple of hours. (I was also reading, so I wasn't always listening to the music exclusively. Sometimes the music was in the same room as I, with my being aware of its presence, but not held captive -- as though a friend were in the room with me, perhaps reading as I read, but with no conversation.

At this point I think my favorite recording is by the American soprano-superstar Renee Fleming. (In what I say, I am aware that she benefits from recording technology that earlier vocalists did not, so that the general presentation is more satisfying. But that's not what I'm really focussing on when I listen. As I said, if I were a true audiophile, I would listen only to vinyl recordings -- and I'd never hear the new singers.) She has the most fantastic voice -- full, rich, almost mezzo in its quality (except that it stays rich and full and even more alluring as she hits the highest notes -- not something that is true of all the interpreters). I have had the great honor to meet the Diva and speak with her just after she finished performing the songs with the Minnesota Orchestra. She is charming as well as talented! And her interpretation (along with Chrisoph Eschenbach and the Houston orchestra -- marvelous instrument, there) is, I think, flawless -- it's not "arty," or contrived or melodramatic. (I would like to instruct the violin soloist in the BEIM SCHLAFENGEHEN, but I have yet to establish my musical conservatory credentials.)

Up to hearing her recording and her live performance, I had considered Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's recording the best (she actually has two). Madame Schwarzkopf is a singer's singer -- immensely committed to making music as good as it can be. She is bright, enormously talented, very attractive (and lamentably retired), and working with her husband, producer Walter Legge, has produced some of the most precise and accurate recordings you can imagine. (I think one critic once called her/their recording of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO "pristine.") Schwarzkopf is often accused of being too perfect -- mannered (I think a little), self-conscious (perhaps in some lieder, certainly NOT in her opera recordings), "precious." But, man, can the woman sing. (She relates, in her memoir, a scene in a restaurant when Maria Callas came up to her at the dining table and insisted she teach her a technique for holding high notes. It's a howler-- the very staid Madame Schwarzkopf and the devil-diva Callas going at high Cs while a roomful of startled diners probably didn't know whether to cry or shout "brava".)

It turns out that Madame Fleming also considers Schwarzkopf's SONGS the most interesting and precise. (I learned this because I asked her, point blank.) After listening to all extant recordings, as a part of preparing to sing the piece herself, Ms. Fleming concluded that hers was the best. (I, of course, felt confirmed in my taste -- if not in my knowledge -- by that information.)

But my experience is that there is no "bad" recording of the SONGS. It is a fabulous piece of music, also fabulously difficult (the range alone is deadly), and most singers have had the good sense to avoid it.

Everyone should have two or three different recordings of the SONGS (I'd like to remain the only person I know who has almost all the extant recordings).

By the way, supposedly Madame Fleming was the model for the opera singer in the novel BEL CANTO (a book I can also recommend). I have not sensed the rawness in Ms. Fleming that is apparent in the singer in the novel, but the novel's singer is known for her performances of RUSULKA (Dvorak's opera), and Renee Fleming is about the only one who sings it these days. (In fact, the aria to the moon from that opera was Ms. Fleming's encore the night she sang SONGS with the Minnesota.) I think it's so neat when two of my great loves, literature and opera, come together.

Happy revels!

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Reflections on the Book of Revelation

I am taking a continuing education course, sort of, at Luther Seminary on the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), taught by Craig Koester. It is a fascinating reminder of – in my case, it is all but an introduction to – the subtle and hope-filled theology in that most troublesome of books in the Bible.

First, some immediate reactions. Craig Koester is a dynamic, informed, engaging, and most competent instructor. It is clear that he has studied this book seriously (he does, after all, teach it to pastors-to-be). But he has a style of presenting the book that is, to say the least, engaging. He is able to communicate relatively sophisticated insights into how the book is structured and how it does not say what it is often portrayed as saying in ways that even the most unsophisticated auditor can grasp. Furthermore, when he takes on bugaboo interpretations of the book, as he does when he highlights the weaknesses of the “Left Behind” series of novels, he does so without any sense of rancor or defensiveness. One has got to love that kind of a presentation, and I do.

Second, Professor Koester has published the accompanying “recommended reading” text: REVELATION AND THE END OF ALL THINGS (Eerdmans, of course, 2001). It is, so far as I can tell, a splendid book. It is chockablock with details and analysis: It provides a very helpful “read” of the book and an interpretation that takes account of misreadings of the book. But, again, it is written on a very popular level: It is not at all difficult to penetrate. And it is vivid and to-the-point.

Third, Professor Koester’s method is not restricted to lecture, illustrated lecture (he’s really into electronic technology to enhance his presentations), discussion, or any combination of the three. He includes singing. Now, I am not a very “participative” class member, but he has gotten me singing “Holy, holy, holy” and other hymns, as well as parts of the liturgy. He does so to illustrate that Revelation may be the single most cited book in the Church’s hymnody and liturgy. What the Church has not been able to teach (and he makes the point that virtually none of the book is included in the Revised Common Lectionary – probably so as not to stir up questions that preachers can’t deal with), it has sung – and in so doing, has communicated the message of the book probably far better than a different theological treatment could have done. (Much of that latest musing is my interpretation, not Professor Koester’s!)

If that is all that could be said of the class, it would be enough to encourage others to take it. And I do so encourage people to do when it is next offered.

But I am developing a sense of the book that leads to a wonderful myriad of theological theses. Let me try out a couple.

First, the book is a wonderfully “Lutheran” celebration of the grace and power of God to good things. There is a remarkable structure to the telling of John’s “visions” that contrasts what John has “heard” and what he “sees.” For example, John writes that he has heard – meaning it has been reported in prophecy and/or been taught – that only 10 percent of the people of the world will be saved once God enters final judgment. And John reports that just as he is about to present a vision. Then John “looks and sees” and finds that what he had “heard” – i.e., the tradition and traditional interpretation of the prophecy – in undone by what he now “sees.” Rather than only 10 percent’s being saved, John sees that 90 percent are saved and only 10 percent lost – and in that latter case because they fought off the salvation.

That all suggests a theological method that does not too literally read the prophecies (however one wishes to define that term) in a way that limits God’s grace and power to be graceful. Rather, be alert to ways in which the grace of God is munificent. God is always abroad to surprise – and his surprise is always on the side of goodness and mercy for the human condition.

Thus, the Book of Revelation contains within its own narrative a hermeneutic and method to fight off the “left behind” and other “millennialism” (pre- and post-) readings that forecast vengeance and wrath and violence and that do not adequately reflect the hope and encouragement contained in the book. For the book is ultimately not a forecast of world events but a diagnosis of the human condition (showing it fraught with challenges to the god-ness of God) and a witness to the ultimate faithfulness and effectiveness of God. Thus, the narrative itself demonstrates that the very bloodthirstiness evident in “apocalyptic” novels and theological treatises is part of what is to be defeated by the faithful God who took on human nature in Messiah Jesus.

Without Professor Koester’s guidance, I doubt I would ever have made that out.

There is in the book, too, a clue to what the nature of Christian life is meant to be. As I read the book and Professor Koester’s book, I am led to see that suffering faithfulness is itself a salvific lifestyle. The people of God are not shown to be the battlers or the ones on whom rests the responsibility to “save the world.” Rather, the “function” of the people of God is simply to exist and persevere in faithfulness in the world – put down, oppressed, not even respected, as the case may be – as a witness to the faithfulness and love of God. The mere existence of the people of the God – which is to say, the Church – is that witness. When the Church maintains its liturgical life with integrity and sings the praise of God (“around the glassy sea”), even though the world would silence her and scatter her and tempt her to the praise of some other power, then that very maintenance becomes the ministry of salvation. The world sees and is won over – at least ultimately.

In chapter 13, for example, the “testimony” of the “saints” becomes the means by which Satan is conquered: “Hold out and hold on,” seems to be the message. Do not (to put it in the context of the first chapters of the book) become too comfortable with the world’s order or too comfortable with one’s “mission” so that one becomes slovenly in one’s practices. Don’t be lukewarm or too accommodating or assimilated. For then, you lose the “testimony.” And even if persecution comes – and it will likely come – then know that you will come out on the other side victorious over Satan and the dragon and on and on.

Of course, significant in all this is not a personal, individual address, but rather an address to the Church – i.e., to congregations (remember that the book begins with addresses to the “seven churches” in Asia Minor – churches in the sense of congregations) and to the entire Church (for the seven are meant to stand for the entire Christian community). The basic unit of consideration is the community. Oh, the book does not ignore individuals – witness the frequent references to the numbers of individuals involved. But the primary focus of the book is on the “gestalt” of the Church. The book is, thus, a wild-and-crazy call for the Church to take up its own cultural identity, in the mode of Willimon and Hauerwas’ book, RESIDENT ALIENS.

Unless the Church hangs together, Christians will hang separately. (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist that.) It is as and in community that individual Christians find their place in God’s reign – this is fundamental assumption of John’s preaching. As a community, we find the resources to resist or endure or defeat the onslaughts of dragons, beasts, Satan. Whatever the outcome, God is present in the event. And in the process the very existence of our community becomes witness to the great things that God – that is, the One who was and is and is to come – has done, is doing, and will do.

This is an exciting portrait of evangelism – or more broadly, of ecclesiology. It takes seriously the mandate of Our Lord to “make disciples” – not intellectual converts. It emphasizes the life of faith more than the recitation of the name of “Jesus.” It recognizes the need for Christian “formation” – for unless one is prepared through worship, catechesis, and example to endure the coming tribulation, one will not likely withstand it. In all of this, it urges reform of the all-too-common individualism and moralism of modern Christianity.

This is really exciting stuff.

And all this after only 2 of the 5 classes. Now, I suppose that my perspective can be shown to be nothing but my own projections onto the text (and into the mind of Professor Koester) of my own pet themes. (The best teaching in the world is hard pressed, I think, to dislodge that impetus.) But so far, I love what I am getting.